In memory of Peter Breck (March 13, 1929-February 6, 2012)
Your brawling days are over--may you rest in peace.
It is with a sad heart that I write this post. One of my favorite childhood actors has died. I started the post three weeks ago with a light discussion of Peter Breck and his character on The Big Valley, but when I resumed my writing this morning and took a quick glance at his biography on IMDb to verify the date of his birth, instead I learned of the death of Peter Breck.
Peter Breck and Anna Lisa from the television program Black Saddle.
The Big Valley aired from 1965 to 1969. I started watching The Big Valley when it was in reruns, but I never missed a show. I loved the close family atmosphere, the three older brothers watching out for little sister, and watching out for each other. Most of all, though, I had a secret crush on Peter Breck with his dark, wavy hair, dark eyes, and charming dimples. He was the perfect man in my eyes--tall, dark, handsome, and flawed, but willing to admit his mistakes.
Peter Breck was also a remarkably versatile and talented actor. He appeared in many stage productions and television shows, including episodes of Gunsmoke, Lawman, Maverick, Cheyenne, and many other popular western series. Breck's character on The Big Valley is the middle son, Nick Barkley, a fun-loving, rowdy, charming man. He's also fiercely loyal and hot-tempered. He doesn't use the best judgment when it comes to disagreements. He has a tendency to jump into a fray when he's outnumbered three to one, and is often beaten pretty badly. His brothers watch from the side then pick up the pieces, shaking their heads.
I would have loved to be the woman kneeling by his side with a damp cloth to soothe his blackened eye, but I was just a kid when this show aired, lying on my belly on the living room floor, elbows on the carpet, chin propped on the palms of my hands as I stared dreamily at his sweet dimpled face.
Joseph Peter Breck was the son of a jazz musician who traveled frequently, so Peter, who was nicknamed Buddy, was raised at the home of his grandparents for a short time. When his parents divorced he moved in with his mother. He served in the U.S. Navy and studied English and Drama at the University of Houston. His Hollywood break came through Robert Mitchum who spotted Breck performing at a theater in Washington D.C. and offered him a role in his film Thunder Road (1958).
Peter Breck was also a singer and writer. His album, Just "Kickin' Back", was released in 1998. He was a regular columnist for Wildest Westerns Magazine. He married the lovely dancer Diana Bourne in 1960 and they had one son, Christopher. The family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Christopher died tragically in his early twenties of Leukemia. Breck took a break from acting to mourn the loss of his child. He later started an acting school in Vancouver. Peter Breck started in numerous films and made even more television appearances, but is best known for his performance as Nick Barkley in The Big Valley.
One of the things I love most about the character of Nick Barkley is his flaws. Nick is temperamental, explosive, energetic, often acts without thinking. He is passionate to a fault. He's also a brawler, though not a good one, which is part of his charm. One of my favorite Peter Breck brawl scenes takes place in the episode aptly named "The Brawlers," which aired December 15, 1965.
In "The Brawlers," Nick's little sister, Audra Barkley (Linda Evans) discovers an Irish family on the Barkley land. The Irish family has purchased land from a swindler, but they have a bill of sale. John James "Jimmy" Callahan (the great Claude Akins) is the leader of the clan. He tries to prove the sale to Audra, but she refuses to listen and instead tries to whip Callahan, so he pulls her from her horse and spanks her, then places her back on her horse backwards and slaps the horse's fanny sending her racing back to the ranch. Audra first fetches guns, then wisely decides to turn to her brothers for help. Of course, the logical brother, Jarrod Barkley (Richard Long) is in San Francisco with their mother, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) so Nick and younger brother Heath (Lee Majors) follow Audra to the camp.
Nick calls the family "Hooligan squatters" and tells them to leave, then rides off with Audra leaving Heath with instructions to mend the fences--there's a metaphor in here somewhere. Heath tries to soothe the wound left by hot-tempered Nick by complimenting the Irish, who he says are always tolerant of other races.
Nick returns to the ranch in search of the maps marking their property line, which he is unable to locate. He is angry and snapping at everyone, including the house servant, Silas (Napolean Whiting), who patiently nudges Nick in the direction of providing the family with some flour and potatoes.
Nick finally receives a telegram from Jarrod verifying that the land has not been sold. He rides back to the camp and discovers Heath flirting with Callahan's niece, Sharon Callahan (played by Noreen Corcoran who was cast in many television shows in the 1950s and 1960s, though "The Brawlers" was her last performance).
Nick rides his horse through the field the family has plowed, waving his telegram. He then rides up to the wagons, demanding that everyone leave immediately and insulting them all in the process. Of course, Jimmy Callahan challenges Nick to a fight, which is what we expected all along, because we all know that if there is one thing Nick Barkley enjoys, it's a fight, in spite of how often he loses (and the show is titled "The Brawlers").
The two men pose with their fists raised and Heath takes a seat beside the wagon. Nick gets in a great first shot knocking Callahan to the ground. Callahan quickly rises and knocks Nick to the ground. Heath shakes his head and rolls a cigarette. Nick rises and...
...at this point I am going to pause for an important explanation about Nick's fighting style. In fact, I call this the "John Wayne Fight Style" because it's something I've noticed often in John Wayne movies, particularly She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. When a man is in a fight and has been knocked to the ground, instead of rising to his feet with his fists raised, ready to defend himself, in the "John Wayne Fighting Style" he stands up slowly, shakes his head as if confused and pauses, arms by his side, waiting for the punch. This also happens to be Nick's trademark fighting style and he does this now--pulls himself to his feet, shakes his head, and waits for the knockout punch from Callahan.
Nick rises again and knocks Callahan to the ground. "Had enough, or are you resting?" Nick asks.
Callahan of course jumps to his feet and knocks Nick to the ground. "Come on you quitter, stand up and fight," Callahan says, but as Nick rises, we find that the two men are both plum tuckered out and end up leaning on each other until they both fall to the ground. Heath picks up his big brother and dumps him unceremoniously on the back of his horse, Callahan gets a bucket of water on his head, and Sharon reads the telegram from Jarrod declaring that they were, indeed, swindled by a fraudulent land company.
Remember Nick's hot temper? Nick returns to the ranch, gathers his men and guns. Heath rides ahead to warn Callahan. "Nick is not a bad man," Heath says, "but right now, he's mad." Callahan responds by grabbing his own gun and heading for the Barkley ranch.
Now, these stories never quite go the way you would expect, which is the beauty of The Big Valley. Victoria and Jarrod return from San Francisco. Callahan arrives at the Barkley ranch demanding the land in spite of the legal issues. Nick prepares to throw him out, and mother Victoria offers the two men a glass of sherry and suggests they shake hands and make up. Victoria convinces the two men to travel together to San Francisco and investigate the matter, and they agree.
They travel to San Francisco by train and the two men begin to understand each other a bit better. We also have yet another glimpse into Peter Breck's fine acting style. There are times during these shows when you can clearly see that he started as a stage actor. His actions are bold, clean, clearly visible to the audience. The two men get into a disagreement on the train and Nick pulls the hat down on the grumbling man behind him, turns around and sits back down, then plunks his boot on the arm rest of the man in front of him. Smooth, clean, bold.
The two men arrive at the hotel where Callahan met the land salesman and discover he has skipped town. Once again, Nick ends up in a brawl, this time with Callahan by his side, and big brother Jarrod bails the two men out of jail, explaining that the swindler actually took advantage of most of the people in town and is now a wanted man.
At first, the humiliated Callahan refuses to return to face his family. "Come on, Man, they can't hang a man for trying," Nick says.
"I'm a dumb, rotten clod," Callahan replies.
"You know, I think you're right," Nick tells him as he walks away.
Come now, reader, you know the Barkleys. You know they're going to help this poor family.
Sure enough, a few commercials later we find the Callahan clan packing their wagons, preparing to leave, when Audra, Heath and Nick ride up on their horses. Heath explains that there is a dry, dusty piece of land belonging to the Barkley's that no one is working and they are willing to donate the land to the Irish settlers if they can figure out a way to irrigate and work the land. Heath gives Nick a verbal nudge and Nick grudgingly admits it was his idea as Heath and Sharon exchange flirtatious glances.
Ahh, Nick. You always lose the fight, but gosh, we love you anyway.