The ‘Single Pilgrim’ transformation of ‘Bonanza’ guest star Beth Brickell
Beth Brickell, the loyal wife of Florida Everglades game warden Dennis Weaver on the family adventure series Gentle Ben, was a frequent 1970s television guest star. Mentored by legendary New York acting teachers Sanford Mesiner and Lee Strasberg, Brickell transitioned into an indie film director and investigative journalist who uncovered the most likely scenario why Arkansas socialite lawyer Maud Crawford mysteriously vanished. She exclusively takes the gloves off for a charming look back at Bonanza and Gunsmoke, by far the two most unforgettable TV westerns.
The Beth Brickell Interview
How did your two Bonanza episodes originate?
Agents are so important. They always got me my work, called me up, and told me where and when to go. They had a script sent to me for my first episode entitled “Emily” [aired March 23, 1969].
I portrayed Little Joe Cartwright’s past girlfriend Emily McPhail, so I got to spend time with Michael Landon. We had a kissing scene, and he was very funny. Every time director Leon Benson would call, “Cut!,” Michael would say, “I think we need to do another take.” The crew was laughing, so we’d do another take.
The only television show guest appearance that I got for myself was the second Bonanza that I did — Dilsey Brennan in “A Single Pilgrim” [January 10, 1971]. Bonanza’s producer was a lovely man named Richard “Dick” Collins. Dick and I became friends after I did “Emily.”
About every six weeks or two months we would have lunch. After a season, we were having lunch and he said, “We’d love to have you on our show again, but there are no roles for you this season [this is for the next season]. For example, we’re casting a role next week for a mountain woman who has to be very plain, she’s abused physically by her father-in-law, and you’re not right for that role.”
I replied, “Let me audition for it.” He said, “No, no, no, she has to be depressed.” “I can be depressed!” “No, no, you’re much too pretty, and she can’t be pretty.” “I’m not pretty without makeup!” I kept arguing with him. Finally I said, “Just let me come in and audition for it.” Finally he said “Okay,” I think just to shut me up.
I went to the Salvation Army and bought this dress that was about two sizes too big for me — a very plain, paisley dress. I pulled the hem out on one side so it would hang down. I didn’t wash my hair for days. When the day came for the audition, I wore thong sandals, put dirt under my toes and fingernails, and wore no makeup. And I thought about everything that would make me depressed.
I went into Warner Brothers Studio, and I’ll never forget the look on the receptionist’s face when I walked into the Bonanza office. She thought I was a homeless person who had wandered onto the Warner Bros. lot by mistake. With a very compassionate, puzzled voice, she asked, “May I help you?” She couldn’t believe it when I told her who I was and that I was there for my audition.
Once I was officially cleared to go into my audition, there were about five men present — Dick, director William Wiard, and whoever else was there. They were just speechless and couldn’t believe it was me. I got the role!
Of the primary Bonanza cast, pretty much all of my scenes were with Dan Blocker when I did “A Single Pilgrim.” I also got to work alongside Jeff Corey, who as my father-in-law was beating me up. He was a good actor. John Schuck played my timid husband. I told the makeup man, “I don’t want any makeup.” I encouraged the hairdresser to make me look as plain as possible.
I was very pleased with what I did [Brickell’s final lines to Blocker as he departs the mountaintop brings chills to this day: “Life’s a single pilgrim, fighting unarmed amongst a thousand soldiers,” part of a poem taken from Death’s Jest Book, published posthumously in 1850 by the estate of Thomas Lovell Beddoes].
The producers submitted my performance for Emmy consideration after the episode aired. I didn’t receive an Emmy nomination, but producers could submit one performance a year in each category. The nomination depended on how many SAG [Screen Actors Guild] members actually saw that episode, and not enough people had seen the episode. Incidentally, my second Hawaii Five-O episode was also submitted for Emmy consideration.
In your sole appearance on TV’s other landmark western Gunsmoke, you depicted Martha Cunningham, a homesteader seeking a better life out West with young son Clay O’Brien in “The Widow and the Rogue,” broadcast on October 29, 1973. Rampaging Comancheros brutally murder your husband, who is never seen and is out seeking help for his family’s broken down wagon. As illiterate hillbilly and Deputy Marshal Festus Haggin, beloved Gunsmoke cast member Ken Curtis is transporting the charming, albeit scheming petty thief J.J. Honegger [James Stacy] to the Dodge City jail when they stumble upon your predicament.
I had no idea until I was a special guest at the 2016 Memphis Film Festival how much interest there is in those westerns from the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s when there were so many of them. Gunsmoke and Bonanza remain in syndication to this day, and I didn’t realize that. I was really very surprised.
Almost all of my work on Gunsmoke was with Jim Stacy. I honestly don’t remember much about that episode or even the storyline except the wagon [Gunsmoke: The Complete Series, Paramount’s proper 65th anniversary project for the iconic western, contains “The Widow and the Rogue”]. I liked Jim a lot. He was a very handsome fella and nice guy. Jim had a very terrible motorcycle accident which resulted in the amputation of his left arm and leg not long after we filmed “The Widow and the Rogue.” He and I both did Posse two years later [a downbeat, politically charged western steered by Kirk Douglas], which was Jim’s first role after that devastating accident.
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