‘Stranger on the Run,’ Henry Fonda’s most obscure western

Sixty-two-year-old Henry Fonda, as an alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner, in the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
Sixty-two-year-old Henry Fonda, as an alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner, in the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
The face that embodied tortured conscience for nearly 50 years: Henry Fonda, as alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner Ben Chamberlain, casts a distinctive right side profile in director Don Siegel’s little-seen western “Stranger on the Run,” distributed as an NBC-TV “Tuesday Night Movie” on October 31, 1967, and later shown in theaters internationally. Image Credit: Universal Television / Profiles in History [auction house]

It’s curiosity-piquing unraveling why Stranger on the Run, a made-for-TV western starring Henry Fonda, remains mired in oblivion despite the winning efforts of future Dirty Harry collaborators Don Siegel and Dean Riesner. Corralling a revered pedigree of Tinseltown veterans — Michael Parks, Sal Mineo, Dan Duryea, Anne Baxter, and sole surviving primary cast alum Michael Burns — the debut entry for NBC’s “Tuesday Night at the Movies” won its Halloween 1967 time slot, earned encouraging notices, and was eventually consumed by European moviegoers.

Set in 1885 in a fictional New Mexico railroad outpost, Death Dance at Banner, as it was originally called, finds Fonda as grizzled saddle tramp and one-time prisoner Ben Chamberlain. Caught stowing away in a boxcar as the theme song performed by Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson ambles to a close [you can read his exclusive remembrance here], the laconic Chamberlain takes a job assisting a general store proprietor. He’s really in town because he promised a friend he’d give a message to his saloon-working sister [Madlyn Rhue], whose penchant for harboring secrets has caused anxiety among certain influential townsmen. Facing a wall of silence, through perseverance Chamberlain discovers her rundown residence — and lifeless body. Hotly pursued by corrupt railroad chief deputy Parks’ posse, the innocent drifter is apprehended. In a nod to The Most Dangerous Game [subsequent movies like Yul Brynner’s Westworld and the politically charged horror of Hilary Swank’s The Hunt also borrowed liberally from the Roaring Twenties short story], Chamberlain is set free in the desert with a horse, water canteen, and an hour’s head start.

With another 15 years destined in the limelight, Chamberlain is an atypical, pathetic role for the 62-year-old Fonda in lieu of all the authority figures grappling with far-reaching decisions that he so handily rendered. Of course, it’s nowhere as atypical as Fonda’s most shocking part in an undisputed classic — blue-eyed calculating murderer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. Stranger on the Run completes a 20-year trilogy exploring unjustly accused men that ignited with the Nebraska-raised actor rendering Ford’s The Fugitive [1947] and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man [1956]. A parallel can also be drawn to 12 Angry Men, where Fonda is the sole voice of dissension among jurors convinced that a young Puerto Rican is guilty of fatally stabbing his father. Not coincidentally, that epic screenplay was penned by Reginald Rose, credited for the original story of Stranger on the Run that Riesner meticulously fleshed out.

Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart author Mike Peros succinctly summarizes Stranger on the Run as “combining traditional Western action with contemporary psychological examination.” Duryea repeatedly steals scenes as over the hill deputy O.E. Hotchkiss, acclimating himself to failing eyesight. Peros opined that the suspenseful sagebrush saga deserved to be Duryea’s final film instead of the schlocky Bamboo Saucer, actually filmed earlier but held up for distribution while the quintessential sniveling outlaw lay dying of pancreatic cancer.

“What do you think this is — a hotel?” Forcefully ejected from a railroad boxcar after stowing away, 62-year-old Henry Fonda determines his next move — hopefully throwing away that unnecessary wig — in the underrated 1967 western “Stranger on the Run.” Image Credit: Universal Television / The Kobal Collection / Shutterstock

Of Fonda’s 96 movies stretching between 1935’s The Farmer Takes a Wife and 1981’s Summer Solstice, 22 were westerns. That doesn’t take into account The Deputy, an inconsequential NBC 30-minute western series broadcast from 1959 to 1961 that Fonda accepted strictly for the paycheck. There would have been more celluloid incidents if Fonda had not flexed his creative muscles in the theater [e.g. three years as the titular character of Mister Roberts, one year defending The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial].

Stranger on the Run was Fonda’s third of four westerns in a row and the best of the bunch. His most recent moneymaker had been the World War II epic Battle of the Bulge two years previously — an eternity in a business focused on the latest trend. Audiences were experiencing oater fatigue unless the genre’s traditional white versus black hat parameters were significantly reimagined [e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch], or you were the unstoppable John Wayne or new kid in town Clint Eastwood.

Fonda was on the precipice of one of his busiest, artistically rewarding seasons in ages. Madigan, Yours, Mine, and Ours, The Boston Strangler, and Once Upon a Time in the West were all on the horizon. The Lucille Ball comedy teaming scored with moviegoers, while Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western broke box office records in France [it unexpectedly bombed in Fonda’s native country]. Privately, the future On Golden Pond Oscar recipient’s fifth marriage to American Airlines stewardess and part-time model Shirlee Adams was built to last, although his reservations about daughter Jane and son Peter’s counterculture alliance intensified.

Stranger on the Run served as Siegel’s final television foray. The former noir helmer reunited with Fonda for his next project — Madigan — a gritty, NYC-based detective drama right at home among his masculine-focused wheelhouse. Five collaborations alongside directorial apprentice Clint Eastwood over the ensuing decade sealed Siegel’s auteur status — Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Dirty Harry, The Beguiled, and Escape from Alcatraz. And he wrung an Oscar-worthy performance out of John Wayne in The Shootist — the Duke’s final movie shamefully languished at the box office. Marc Svetov contributed a piece to the Noir City Sentinel that persuasively argued, “In Siegel’s films, there are few loose ends…he preferred stories that were direct, lithe, and hardboiled, yet not tough to the point of being inhumane, and he disliked superfluous talk.”

Riesner penned five scripts of Eastwood’s break-out series Rawhide between 1963 and 1964, including “Incident of the Pale Rider.” Coogan’s Bluff was Eastwood’s second American film following his Leone spaghetti western trilogy, and Riesner was hired. Their 20-year partnership yielded Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, The Enforcer, and Sudden Impact. Siegel retained Riesner for 1973’s Charley Varrick. If you can envision exasperated grouch Walter Matthau as a struggling crop duster who robs a bank containing Mafia money, you‘re ready for Charley Varrick.

Encore screenings of Stranger on the Run occurred occasionally in the late ’70s. The dodgy JTC Video retitled the western as Lonesome Gun, perhaps to avoid copyright claims, and issued a VHS in 1993. Universal greenlit a DVD for French consumption, but apparently territorial rights and limited demand have hindered the film’s availability on any official format in the USA. Compared to the prolific Warner Archive, which has delivered over 4,000 rare, manufactured-on-demand movies in the past decade, the Universal Vault Series lacks strategic branding. No airings have materialized on suitable satellite/cable channels like Encore Westerns or INSP. Streaming is possible on Vimeo and Dailymotion thanks to conscientious uploaders, or simply scroll below to watch. Stranger on the Run deserves exhumation.

Tap to watch the full 93-minute NBC movie-of-the-week “Stranger on the Run,” a gripping 1967 western starring Henry Fonda, written by Dean Riesner, and directed by Don Siegel. Video Credit: NBCUniversal / Vimeo
Henry Fonda smiles in spite of an awful brown wig in director Don Siegel’s rarely remembered 1967 western Stranger on the Run
Henry Fonda smiles in spite of an awful brown wig in director Don Siegel’s rarely remembered 1967 western Stranger on the Run
At his most contented on a movie set, 62-year-old Henry Fonda, as alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner Ben Chamberlain, dons an ill-suited wig in director Don Siegel’s assured 1967 western “Stranger on the Run.” Image Credit: Universal Television / Profiles in History [auction house]
Dan Duryea and Michael Parks joke around in this behind the scenes candid from the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
Dan Duryea and Michael Parks joke around in this behind the scenes candid from the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
Yes ma, we’re deputies! Dan Duryea [O.E. Hotchkiss] and Michael Burns [Matt Johnson; in awe of the railroad-deputized misfit posse] joke around on the 1967 set of director Don Siegel’s “Stranger on the Run.” Duryea got to play the lead in a number of films starting with the 1946 noir crime thriller “Black Angel” but earned celluloid immortality as Jimmy Stewart’s taunting nemesis in Anthony Mann’s brilliant “Winchester ‘73.” Stewart and Duryea joined forces three more times — “Thunder Bay,” “Night Passage,” and “The Flight of the Phoenix” — with the latter Academy Award-nominated Sahara desert adventure ending their collaboration on a laudable note. Burns spent two seasons on the long-running “Wagon Train” anthology as a headstrong teenager searching for his prairie-bound father. He was 29 years old when he retired from acting after guesting on “The Bionic Woman” and Angie Dickinson’s “Police Woman” in 1977 to teach history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789–1945” is a biography penned by Burns documenting the notorious French political scandal which received a glowing review from the New York Times. Image Credit: Universal Television / Profiles in History [auction house]
Zalman King, Michael Burns, Tom Reese, Sal Mineo, and Dan Duryea are posse members seeking Henry Fonda in Stranger on the Run
Zalman King, Michael Burns, Tom Reese, Sal Mineo, and Dan Duryea are posse members seeking Henry Fonda in Stranger on the Run
Clockwise from top left are members of corrupt railroad chief deputy Michael Parks’ posse — Zalman King [Larkin], Michael Burns [Matt Johnson], Tom Reese [Leo Weed], Sal Mineo [George Blaylock], and Dan Duryea [O.E. Hotchkiss] — in “Stranger on the Run.” Mineo was Oscar-nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor in James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and Paul Newman’s “Exodus.” Fifteen years into his career by the time of Siegel’s 1967 western, the handsome bisexual actor faced a crossroads. Movie offers were dwindling, but television guest turns offered a ray of light. Senselessly robbed and murdered outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976, Mineo was only 37 years old and was on the verge of a stage comeback as the bisexual cat burgler in the San Francisco production of “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead.” Image Credit: Universal Television / Profiles in History [auction house]
Director Don Siegel gives scene feedback to Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda on location in New York City for 1968’s “Madigan”
Director Don Siegel gives scene feedback to Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda on location in New York City for 1968’s “Madigan”
Director Don Siegel [left] gives scene feedback to Richard Widmark [center] and Henry Fonda on the streets of New York City while shooting “Madigan,” a gritty detective drama issued on March 29, 1968, and later resurrected as a brief six-episode, 90-minute NBC series starring Widmark. Image Credit: Universal Pictures / The Beatriz Clemente Collection

© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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