Into each life some rein must fall: Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood, Rawhide

Question: I used to watch Rawhide as a kid, and I remember trail boss Gil Favor, my favorite guy on the show, leaving near the end and Rowdy Yates taking over. Why did that happen? Thank you, and let me just say that while you recently joked about how you ramble, I appreciate your in-depth answers.


Answer: Why, thanks, Steve — I shall not disappoint on this one. The actors left the show for the usual reasons: money and ratings. Rawhide, a CBS success after launching in January 1959, had gone through a long string of producers and had fallen in the ratings, from sixth in 1960-61 to 13th the next year, 22nd the year after that and 44th the following year, so changes were in order. Eric Fleming, who played Favor, was let go, and a young guy by the name of Clint Eastwood, who played assistant trail boss Rowdy, got a promotion.

"They fired me because they were paying me a million dollars a year," Fleming told TV Guide in 1965, after a bloodletting that also saw the departures of cast members Sheb Wooley, James Murdock and Robert Cabal. (Not quite true; Fleming was then making $220,000.) But money played a part, certainly, and no one tried to hide it. Executive producer Ben Brady was up front about that in explaining why Wooley went and Steve Raines stayed. "Both played straightforward cowboys," he said. "They duplicated each other. We dropped Wooley because he was more expensive than Raines."

Making at least one of the decisions easier, reportedly, was the fact that Fleming was a troublemaker. In 1958, on the first day of location filming for the show, Fleming and Eastwood got into such a bad argument that they went behind a fence to duke it out. "Clint would have killed me," Fleming admitted, "so I suggested we postpone it until the end of the working day." By that time, tempers had cooled considerably and Fleming lived to be fired years later.

For his part, the usually easygoing Eastwood, who had formerly alternated with Fleming in heading up episodes, wasn't too happy with the move, either. "Why should I be pleased?" he said. "I used to carry half the shows. Now I carry them all. For the same money." (At this point, I really need to once again point out how refreshing it is to read old stories featuring celebrities who didn't feel the need to worry about what the suits thought when talking to the press.)

Paul Brinegar, who played Wishbone the cook and was also kept on, saw no need to sugarcoat things, either. "Utter shock," he said in characterizing his reaction to the moves. "They have decimated the cast." (At this point, I really need to point out how refreshing it is to read stories featuring celebrities who use words like "decimated.") He wasn't much kinder when discussing the scripts he was handed after the casting changes, either. "The nucleus of the old audience will be disappointed," he said. Costar Raines was only a little nicer, calling the writing "mediocre."

Four years earlier, Eastwood presented the picture of a loyal trouper, which he was. Far from the ruthless killers he'd make a career of playing in later spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry movies, he was the kind of guy who picked struggling bees and grasshoppers out of the swimming pool. ("I always feel that they were put here for some purpose and it's not my business to let them drown," he explained.) He was a hard worker, too, for the series grind back then was often a lot more demanding than the schedules today's stars frequently complain about. In his first two years on Rawhide, Eastwood shot some 80 hourlong episodes — and was grateful for the showbiz break.

"I wasn't going anywhere when this show came along," Eastwood admitted. "Now I guess I'm a star. Eventually, like anyone else, I'd sort of like to branch out a bit, do other things. I don't figure Rawhide will last forever, but I don't figure to walk out on it, either."

He didn't have to. Despite all the changes, or maybe because of them, Rawhide's last roundup was in January 1966. It's fair to say Eastwood's been just fine since then.