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November 2009     Web Edition     Issue #3

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The Rebel, Johnny Yuma

Johnny Yuma Was a Rebel

or How I Know

Nick Adams is Cooler

Than James Dean…

by Ron Garmon

I think it was about the time of the second Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film that my own End of the Line came into view.

In fevered course of tracking down and viewing just about every film in the original 1983 reference guide, I happened to see about 70% of the titles in the 1996 sequel plus a similar percentage of those in Creature Features Movie Guide and had gone far into the unlisted badlands beyond. Thirties and forties classic Hollywood horror, Fifties giant bug movies, slashers, arthouse, grindhouse, I’d run through very nearly the whole mad lot, what with L.A.’s still-peerless repertory film community plugging any remaining gaps. Radio was filling with yammerheads, I’d given up on most non-news television programming about the time The A-Team got canceled, and quit following TV news when I quit drinking alcohol. These last two developments were interrelated and (it turns out) mutually reinforcing.

What I needed was a new obsession. What I did was return to an old one.

The western movie began to disappear from cinemas at about the time I was really getting into horror. Raised as I was on classic, spaghetti, and revisionist cowboy spectacle, I assumed the genre - the oldest in movie history and for decades a keystone attraction of Hollywood product worldwide - would be around forever until suddenly it wasn't. Routine production of westerns out of the major American studios slowed considerably by the mid-1970s and the Italians had already switched over to cop, horror and exploitation films. Last entries out of Cinecitta like Keoma (1976) and Mannaja (aka A Man Called Blade) (1977) brilliantly exhibited the same bleak bloodsoaked nihilism that informed Heaven’s Gate (1980) but at many, many times less the moronic critical reaction. Most of these “twilight spaghettis” went unreleased in the United States but the very public butchering and abandonment of Michael Cimino’s masterpiece signaled the western movie was done.

Same thing for western television series. Cultural conservatives (hereafter referred to as “wingnuts”) still complain the TV western was victim of the so-called “Rural Purge” of the early 1970s when clodhopper favorites like Mayberry RFD, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Governor & J.J., My Three Sons, The Andy Williams Show, Bonanza, Alias Smith & Jones and more left the air, some after runs of many years.

Like much right-wing cultural grievance, the Purge depends upon addlepated conspiracy theory to stoke up grievances the griever never thought he had. This is easily provable by asking yourself the question - “Did some liberal cabal secretly whack Kate Bradley from Junction. Bonanza’s Hoss Cartwright and the Pete Duel half of Smith & Jones just to get Archie Bunker on the air?” If the answer is “No,” then congratulations for the firm grip you display upon any remaining marbles.

To avoid reckoning with this or any question, Purge theorists relay upon shameless padding. A son of rural America myself, I can attest to the minimal regard 1970s flyover country held for Andy Williams. Indeed, we-uns thought cityfolk liked him and blamed far-off places like Studio City and Burbank for his too-durable presence. Worse, anyone still nourishing a grudge involving The Governor & J.J. likely suffers from worse than mere psychotic delusions.

What is too often uninterrogated is this narrative’s bold appropriation of something said wingnuts didn’t invent and wasn’t made with them particularly in mind. Like its elder cousin the western B-movie, the TV western was marketed all over the world up until the world ceased to be interested. Tom Mix long ago realized the Old West wasn’t a time or place, but a state of mind that somehow endures and may exist anywhere.

At this point, the Marxist in me is expected to utter words like “imperialist cultural hegemony” and wotnot, but the bare fact of the matter is the cowboy hero (the single indispensable figure in the traditional Old West narrative and as necessary to it as the monster to horror films) is as useless to late capitalism as balls on a granite buffalo. A figure of wistful imagination in the days of the Organization Man, the cowboy is incomprehensible to today’s media-led Disorganization Men except as a rebuke. As children are gassed at the border, the workings of government leak at every joint, and yet another parcel of Presidential crooks is dragged to infamy and prison, who can say the Right - to practically a man, Baby Boomers - now represents anything such boyhood idols Hopalong Cassidy or the Lone Ranger taught them?

Johnny Mack Brown

Yes, onscreen John Wayne was a gasbag, Johnny Mack Brown a beefy bully, Clint Eastwood an unreadable antihero, and Franco Nero a sexy and traumatized murder machine, but Randolph Scott, Tim Holt, George O’Brien, Wayne Morris, Joel McCrea, Wild Bill Elliott and more followed a much different, less compromised template. Independent, proud, two-fisted, and intolerant of injustice and oppression, free of responsibility and entitlement, these fellows played both sides of the Law but only one side of human decency. In short and perhaps scandalous terms, these men were the prototypes of today’s oft-derided Social Justice Warrior.

If, for any reason, the cheery, pugnacious, morally cocksure, revolution-for-the-lulz-of-it righteousness of the people now known as “millenials” seems even a little familiar to you, this is probably it. Now imagine how disconcerting it is for the Boomer conservatives who rule us to gaze into the noseringed faces of their generational antagonists and see all Magnificent Seven staring mockingly back.

To return to our muttons, fannish consideration of the western movie genre will extend anyone’s film jones to near-infinity and even a cursory look into western TV series opens up great vistas beyond for the cheerfully obsessive. The 1950s TV western pared the lazy poetry of the 1940s B-movie western down to haiku length. What had been elegant, neat and near-Shakespearean at an hour more or less became, at 55 and 25 minutes, a series of pulpy dilemmas and shoot-’em-down climaxes timed for commercial interruption(s) and short non-meditative attention spans. Subject matter became less classical and more topical, as ratings-minded producers quarried newspapers and magazines present and past for instant-engagement plots to keep early tubeheads from changing the channel. This was how contemporary issues of racism, segregation, youth violence, war and its aftermath were all smuggled into the plots regardless of the creators’ politics or even intent. In this context, The Rebel attains its meaning.

Nick Adams is Johnny Yuma

This context and the leading man. Nick Adams was quite a fellow and these 76 episodes turned out to be his monument. His career is as fascinating to watch as it must have been unbearable to be anywhere near. But more on him later.

Individual cowboys are worth noting in detail, since through them we see how far our subject strays from a spacious norm. B-western movie heroes were an ornery individualistic lot and the more durable sceen characters were based on one or two instant-read traits. Tim Holt put just as much of a sly and formidable acting talent into the grinning babyfaced quickdraw artist of fifty RKO B’s as into his more celebrated turns for Orson Welles and John Huston. In the interval between the still-iconic masculine idol in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and his rock-steady presence in the later films of John Ford, George O’Brien knew his biggest box office success as the affable, bluff, oft-shirtless hero of a score of oaters in the years just before WW II. Despite a blazing charisma evident from his very first roles, John Wayne came by his trademark slow-talking, slow-walking persona as “the Duke” only after much onscreen trial and error. Descending the scale, ex-rodeo rider Ken Maynard may have been an abrasive drunken S.O.B. of minimal acting talent, but he could ride a horse like some knightly dream of valor and his stardom proceeded from there.

TV western heroes followed suit, with series often constructed around the most readable part of an actor’s appeal. Since they were played by James Garner and Jack Kelly, both Maverick boys were goodnatured, easygoing professional gamblers who would much rather talk or swindle than fight. Despite minimal acting experience, Clint Walker slid without visible effort into Cheyenne Bodie, a Hell-on-wheels frontiersman too big for one or even five men to intimidate. The role of coolheaded and tactical Will Sonnett - a once-famous Army scout now scouring the West for his son with his grandson in The Guns of Will Sonnett - was precisely tailored to Walter Brennan’s considerable dramatic chops. A surprising number of actors passed on the role of Major James West, but Robert Conrad grabbed onto the fist-swinging, savate-kicking, gadget-using acrobat hero of The Wild, Wild West like the part had been especially written for him. If Marshal Matt Dillon told some saddle-bum to vacate Dodge City, the only realistic choices the bum had were picking a direction or ordering a coffin. The main reason Gunsmoke lasted two decades was bulky James Arness’ ability to credibly maintain the role of a stoic, remorseless, and unkillable lawman up until the very end; indeed for a number of years past it.

Johnny Cash had an early hit with the series theme song.

Johnny Yuma was a little different from these great ones. Proud, simmering, free as a Wobbly and visibly traumatized by his war experience, Yuma rode the West shooting foes down without hesitation and with only the barest gesture towards the code of the Fair Fight. Any man with his weapon skinned around Yuma is a shoot-to-kill target and he’ll suckerpunch a deputy marshal in the solar plexus for simply spitting on the ground near him. Illiterate clodhoppers thumbing through the manuscript pages in his CSA saddlebag typically take a savage beating for it. If this Johnny Reb tells some bluejawed galoot he won’t drink with him, it’s not from any gentlemanly airs but because he’s mere seconds away from punching the guy’s lights out. He courts trouble by wearing that war-issue Confederate kepi on his head for no better reason than he’ll be damned if he’ll take it off. Perversely, Yuma’s no Southern nationalist and gives not one hoot in Hell for the nation he fought for or the slave-based plantation society that died with it. As far as Yuma’s concerned, the Lost Cause ought to stay lost. Over the course of the series, we find out why he feels no love for Dixie and the reasons only deepen the viewer’s conviction that Yuma is marooned by history and has to make his own way. One of the reasons he scratches in his journal is to make sense of the new order he sees emerging after the war. It’s certainly no place for a wandering man of letters.

No, he won't stay and be the law.

No, he won’t stay and be the Law in your shitass town, though he’ll work any honest job. Yes, he’ll take getting his head split open before he’ll be a slave on some crooked sheriff’s labor gang. Yes, he’s a sworn brother to the Kiowa chief since Episode Three (“Yellow Hair”) and what is any man red or white to make anything of it? He’d very much like to get back to his reading and writing he sends now and then to editor Dodson back home in Mason City, Texas and wishes you’d keep your distance. Right there’s about fine.

As the first season clatters along, you begin to see the why of this magnificent hardassedness. The postbellum America depicted in The Rebel is a vicious and murderously hypocritical place peopled by villainous drifters, cowardly townsfolk, and the kind of ugly saddle scum who’d shoot a man down for his coat or horse. Along the trail, every campfire means trouble and the cheap clapboard towns are full of mean hicks, civic buck-passers, dog-drunk professional men, would-be lynchers, corrupt lawdogs, straight-up racist assholes with badges, oppressed Native Americans, oppressed Mexican-Americans, women and fathers grieving for boys lost in the war and combat veterans many furlongs farther around the bend than Yuma. He sees partisans of both sides of the late conflict behave like deluded degenerate animals. The West has but an emerging culture, barely any law and order, and... greed and (occasionally) horniness provide most of the motivation out of putatively sane characters. Many are halfwits, though some few know enough English literature to reel off passages from Shakespeare or Milton before pulling a trigger.

Faced with this bitter milieu and such unyielding sheer cussedness in a lead character, what does The Rebel have to interest us?

Well, for music lovers, there’s the theme song by none other than Johnny Cash, who had one of his early hits with it. That iconic voice tells us what to expect -

Johnny Yuma was a rebel, he wandered alone.
He got fightin’ mad, this rebel lad
He was panther-quick and leather-tough
And he reckoned that he’d been pushed enough
The Rebel, Johnny Yuma.

For fans of violence, there’s great gratuitous lashings of the stuff. The teaser usually kicks proceedings off with gunfire, pistol-whipping or a short death struggle. The pilot episode opens with Johnny shooting a Native American warrior in the face and it scarcely gets any gentler. Delving into the series, the thought occurred somewhere in the middle of Episode 6 (“The Scavengers” ) that these are 25-minute high-killcount proto-spaghetti westerns. All the familiar elements are in place, including a surly near-antiheroic lead. That Quentin Tarentino could fashion half his revisionist spaghetti epic The Hateful Eight out of a complicated variation on the plot of one first season Rebel episode (“Fair Game”) gives a good idea of the kind of ruthless narrative curve balls the series’ writers threw at viewers on the weekly.

The overriding issue of the Civil War was slavery and producers (to my intense disappointment) didn’t touch it, except for a couple of heavily ironic occasions when Yuma was himself made a slave. Despite this Eisenhower Era caution on the subject of race, there’s not only nothing in The Rebel for a modern-day racist or Southern nationalist to get his teeth into, the very act of gnawing the bones of this show would certainly pizen his worthless guts.

Nick Adams and Irvin Kershner, on set.

Then still-prevalent racist clichés of the Dunning School of history are not only not affirmed by the stories, they’re tacitly spat upon, as worthless to us now as the musings of James Fenimore Cooper were to Johnny Yuma on the trail. The past was depicted as unambiguously rotten and the future something anyone would be damned lucky to live to see.

Shot in familiar LA county cowboy movie country in noirish black & white, the bulk of the episodes were directed by Irvin Kershner, who soon graduated to prestige indie films (The Hoodlum Priest, The Luck of Ginger Coffey) before moving up to mainstream features like The Eyes of Laura Mars and The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner brought his characteristic dynamic comic-panel framing to the series, crowding the small screen with faces and whiplash-fast action. His delicate handling of actors - easily noticeable if one watches Star Wars and Empire back-to-back - is rare in a half-hour TV western of this era, where even gifted players tend to give off-the-shelf performances. These elements favored by Kershner carried over into episodes directed by drive-in movie wizard Bernard Kowalski, whose knack for startling camera placement livens up the house style in a number of memorable segments. The scripts all passed through producer Andrew J. Fenady and he cultivated a talented stable of writers, many of them women.

Johns Carradine and Dehner play the only other two continuing characters. Carradine puts in two appearances as Elmer Dodson, crusading editor of the Mason City Bulletin, Yuma’s hometown newspaper and a profound boyhood influence. It’s to Dodson that Yuma mails all those manuscript pages and the older man encourages him to a literary career. Dehner also appears twice as Johnny’s tough Uncle John Sims, who shares the family trait of hardheaded truculence.

Adams and Leonard Nimoy in "The Hunted".

A few notable players put in guest appearances, sometimes more than one. J. Pat O’Malley turned up three times and Richard Jaeckel, L.Q. Jones, Jack Elam, Victor Buono, Soupy Sales (!), Yvette Vickers, George Macready, Tom Drake, and Jamie Farr (billed on one as “Jamal Farah”) did two each. Memorable one-shots include Warren Oates, Robert Vaughn, Strother Martin, a dishevelled Leonard Nimoy (impressively un-Spocklike as a wrongly accused man), Rodolfo Acosta, Dan Blocker (cast against type as a smirking carpet-vest heavy), Robert Blake (impressive as a sneering insecure gun-punk), William Demerest, Lisa Lu (the Crazy Rich Asians star here a young dowry bride in distress), and singers Tex Ritter, Vic Damone, and Johnny Cash, the latter perfect as an idiot Confederate holdout. Agnes Moorehead scores a small triumph as the loony matriarch of “In Memoriam” who forces a whole town to grieve over her dead Yankee boy son. Career B-western varmint Bill Coontz is credited with seven episodes, but seems to show up every fifth or sixth, spitting on the ground and warning Yuma to get outer town afore he winds up dead same as the rest. Onetime child actress (and Nick’s wife) Carol Nugent was cast as a Native American love interest of Yuma’s early in Season One.

Adams, Lisa Lu and Philip Ahn in "Blind Marriage".

Recognizable faces being relatively scarce, the rest of the actors are mostly either period deadwood like Olan Soule and George Becwar or young up-and-comers soon to flame out with but a handful of long-forgotten credits to their names. Among the latter is future Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher in one of his rare turns as a beefcake actor. Fancher shows up late in the series as yet another doomed kid gunman and makes a serviceable villain.

With less than usual in the way of guest stars to share screen time and without even a sidekick to advance the plot (a hole in the standard formula filled brilliantly by Nick’s voiceovers from Yuma’s journal), The Rebel’s whole narrative load fell upon the star, which turned out just fine. Adams better than holds his own in any comparison with the great western TV heroes. Despite undersized stature, a smooth character actor face, little visible ruggedness, and pretty much zero rustic charm, the actor rises to the challenge of as complex and ornery a lead as TV would see until Tony Soprano. Like James Gandolfini as Tony, he didn’t so much play Johnny Yuma as inhabit him.

Nick was born Nicholas Adamshock in Nanticoke, PA in mid-1931 to a dirt-poor coal-mining family who packed up the family jalopy and moved to Jersey City after an uncle perished in the mines. Hard times and a movie addiction decided his fate and he set about becoming an actor. After striking out in New York, Adams hitchhiked to LA and starved for a while before catching the eye of John Ford, who gave him a small role in Mister Roberts (1955). Another small role in Rebel Without a Cause soon came along and with it, a permanent part of the James Dean legend as the two became fast friends. Adams was, among many other talents, an excellent mimic and that’s his voice substituting for Dean’s in parts of Giant (1956), particularly the drunken final speech upon which much of the latter’s reputation as an actor rests.

Adams and The King.

Adams was reportedly devastated by Dean’s early death but not so much as he didn’t mind picking up a little publicity posing by his pal’s grave. Cheery and fun-loving when not brooding and depressed, Adams was socially on the Hollywood A-list with his name regularly in the gossip columns well before he began chumming it up with Elvis Presley. The two may or may not have had sex or swapped prescription drugs, but both persistent rumors attest to the curious fact that for such a forgotten actor, quite a lot of legend surrounds Nick yet. Part of the reason why was the actor’s restless talent for self-promotion that eventually got on Hollywood’s nerves. Even Gladys Presley said of him “That boy Nick Adams is sure a pushy fellow.”

But professionally, Nick was on the B-list until The Rebel. High-profile turns in hit movies like Pillow Talk (1958) and No Time For Sergeants (1959) showed manic energy and scene-stealing capacity but firmly relegated him to supporting player status. None of the studio brass thought he was a star, but he did, and his incessant lobbying for a TV series paid off in late 1958 when novice producers Fenady and Kershner cast him as the implacable Johnny Yuma in the new youth-oriented western they were doing with future game-show titans Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. In a near-unprecedented move, he got himself taken on as a partner, obtaining co-creator billing and a measure of control over the show that must have galled every cowboy actor then sweating out a TV contract. Mama Presley was right - Adams was quite the pushy fellow.

In this high-profile crack at western heroism, Adams didn’t attempt to coast on star-power he didn’t have (as Ty Hardin did on Bronco) or insist upon machismo at the expense of character (Chuck Connors on Branded) or cry to the press how his dramatic chops were wasted on such oatmeal (among The Wild, Wild West’s Robert Conrad many talents is self-critique), or just settle sensibly into his saddle and let some Inner Cowboy take over. Nick didn’t have time for it.

Though something of a dialect specialist, Adams didn’t bother giving Yuma a Texas or any kind of Southern accent, choosing instead to crank the latent Jersey City tough guy in his voice up to somewhere near eleven and keep it there. This has the effect of proletarianizing the character for us - Yuma’s no aristocrat with a body servant or displaced patriarch longing for the Good Old Days, but a self-sufficient - if somewhat uneasy - inhabitant of the Here and Now. The refusal to give Yuma any accent but Adams’ own underscores how personal was the actor’s identification a role he expected to be playing for a long time.

Adams, Doris Day and Rock Hudson in PILLOW TALK.

What the guy did was approach the role as an actor, or more specifically, as a certain kind of Method character actor. The lines and situations called for a hardnosed, snake-mean son-of-a-bitch so Adams wisely appropriated John Garfield’s brooding, Jimmy Cagney’s coiled energy, and Marlon Brando’s stylish way with his fists with a mimic’s eye for behavioral detail. It’s all there - the sensitive poet’s expression, the springy forward lean on the walk, a way of dominating the frame by just smoldering. Over this superstructure of influence, he added gamecock steeliness and visible layers of trauma and resolve.

You get the feeling the guy saw things during the war and the wandering years after that not only changed his character but hardened it, perhaps permanently. In this, Adams seems to have forgotten whatever he’d seen in movie theaters growing up and drew from the traumatized and shattered World War II and Korea vets that were everywhere quite visible in American society. Then as now, veterans made up a disproportional share of the nationwide population of drifters and marginals celebrated by the Beats and fitfully exploited by Hollywood since the early Thirties. We see Yuma as a drifter and Dharma bum, living off next-to-nothing with no expectations of much better ahead. He’ll know what he’s looking for when he finds it. He’s Jack Kerouac with a gun.

Adams with Agnes Moorehead.

The Rebel ran only two seasons, the story goes, because ABC wasn’t interested in a spinoff producers were pushing called The Yank and decided to cancel, though likely the show’s general tone of youthful violence and nihilism also played a part. The rest of Nick’s story, however, deserves following because of the show’s personal nature as well as a reminder that there really are ten thousand ways for a cowboy to die in the West.

Post-Yuma, Adams looked poised for major stardom. In an unusual move, NBC picked up The Rebel for prime-time reruns as a summer replacement series. The show had plainly ended before audiences wanted it to go and the network used that to grease the skids for Saints and Sinners, an hourlong primetime vehicle starring Nick as crusading reporter Nick Alexander with heavy support from an impressive roster of guest stars, including Lew Ayres, Barbara Eden, Robert Lansing, Red Buttons, Tab Hunter, Irene Dunne, Harvey Korman, Brian Donlevy, Joseph Cotten, and film legend Paul Muni in his final role. Despite interesting stories and a lead character as tightly wound as Johnny Yuma, the series - up against established hit The Rifleman and the first season of The Lucy Show - tanked and was canceled early in 1963 after eighteen episodes.

Anyone else would’ve recovered from these petty disasters, and so did Nick, for a while. Back in movies on an equal footing with the Big Boys, Adams didn’t screw around. His next picture was Don Siegel’s blood ‘n’ balls macho classic Hell is for Heroes (1962), with Steve McQueen, Fess Parker and James Coburn. In a movie in which pretty much everyone gives a career-defining performance, Adams knocks it out of the park as a Polish refugee who tags along with a tough frontline infantry unit slogging through WW II France. He out-acts everyone else, especially McQueen, whose fabled laconic cool looked like two cents in the same frame with Nick’s galestorm of desperate emotion. Adams followed up with The Hook (1963), paired with Robert Walker, Jr. as Korean War soldiers ordered by hardass sergeant Kirk Douglas to shoot an enemy POW.

James Gregory and Adams in TWILIGHT OF HONOR

Nick’s role in Twilight of Honor (1963) was a good one - a snarling, unsympathetic loser accused of a lurid murder and about to be heaved onto Death Row by an overeager DA (master windbag James Gregory), but for a dogged young lawyer (Richard Chamberlain, TV’s Dr. Kildare then reaching for film stardom) and his venerable mentor (the mighty Claude Rains in one of his last appearances). This by-the-numbers, Boris Sagal-directed courtroom drama picked up solid reviews at the time, though the film is an obscurity today best known for Adams’ expensive self-conducted campaign for the 1963 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. After much energetic lobbying, he got the nomination and kept on campaigning, secure he could bag the statuette by force of will. He was reportedly so convinced he’d win that he practiced running down the aisle at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Looking at the five nominees in that year’s category today, one wonders why Adams chose this particular hill to die on. Yes, John Huston was up for The Cardinal, but few thought Bobby Darin (Nick’s costar in Heroes) would win for his turn in Captain Newman, M.D. and Darin’s post-nomination career as a movie actor sputtered. Gruff, pop-eyed Hugh Griffith was a ball of fire in Tom Jones, but probably not button-holing Academy members on the daily. Maybe Nick thought the race a fifty-fifty tossup between his meanass innocent slob and Melvyn Douglas’ upright old coot in Hud and maybe it was, but when the envelope opened, Douglas had won.


Adams’ startlingly premature death less than four years later is still thought mysterious by some, but the bizarre Rod Serlingesque post-nomination career plummet preceding it is plainly at least half the reason why. Young Dillinger (1965) didn’t make anyone forget Lawrence Tierney’s pass at the same Depression-era bank robber twenty years earlier. His next star turn was as determined young American hero Stephen Reinhart in AIP’s 1965 Lovecraft-inspired youth-market horror film Die Monster Die! Shot in England, this clipped, colorful and still-creepy directorial debut from Roger Corman alum Daniel Haller has been endlessly dissected by 1960s horror freaks, including me in Famous Monsters #255. The publication wanted an article about Lovecraft and I thought “Yog-Sothoth and the Bikini Machine” a fitting title.

Surveying Die Monster Die! delightedly for at least the eighth time, I find Nick’s performance still the worst thing about an otherwise brisk and entertaining eighty minutes. He seems to be energetically spinning his wheels in a simple stereotyped role any youngish studio smoothie of the era would’ve cruised through while blowing kisses. Considering the variety of roles in which Nick brought something extra, it’s confounding to see him bilge the kind of easy work Doug McClure could have sent his teeth in to do. Adams’ scenes with a wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff are like wrestling matches in which Boris always wins. Worse, Nick fails to strike up any warmth with leading lady Suzan Farmer, which is mystifying given how nimbly he played his turns as loverboy on The Rebel. The only other actor he seems fully aware of is Patrick Magee, understandable as this legendary Irishman’s low, cracked singsong voice is its own special effect suitable for hypnotizing snakes. At best, Nick’s loud flailing and barking add to the film’s general sense of glowing green unease. There’s only enough Johnny Yuma left in him to throw a punch at a grabby irradiated vine.

It got worse, but a few kaiju fans wouldn’t say so. Nick went to Tokyo for four Toho-International movies, the most famous being Inshiro Honda’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (1966) and Invasion of the Astro-Monster, eventually released as Monster Zero in the US over two years after his death. The latter is a jolly monster-mash frolic shortchanged by Toho’s budget cutting but enlivened by the obvious blast Nick seems to be having. He generates nice buddy chemistry with co-lead Akira Takarada and shares visible attraction vibes with cutie femme spy Kumi Mizuno, with whom he reportedly had an affair. If so, then it was likely one of the last good times the poor guy had.

Akira Takarada, Adams and Kumi Mizuno in

From there on, what remained of Nick’s short life was dominated by a disintegrating marriage (part of which crumpled on live TV) and prolonged and unusually ugly divorce. A lot of harrowing details went public and this grief circus lasted until Adams first got, then relinquished custody of the couple’s two children in early 1967. At some point, he apparently feared his wife might have him committed. Gossip columnists wrote of the actor’s “crazed states” and his career prospects dried up at a rate almost frightening even in this age of Instant Death by Twitter.

Adams did almost twenty TV guest star shots after losing the Oscar, so his rapid plummet wasn’t completely noticeable to fans as it was happening. These include stints on Combat!, Rawhide, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and five episodes of Burke’s Law. Probably the most notable was his performance in a episode of The Outer Limits titled “Fun and Games.” Nick is strong as ever as a desperate ex-prizefighter teleported - along with tender and idealistic Nancy Malone - to a distant hellscape to battle for humanity’s survival and the kicks of a moralistic, sadistic and annoyingly gabby and trolly alien race. This Gerd Oswald-directed segment is a Season One highlight and one of the last glimpses we get of Nick in his prime - scowling and sneering defiantly in a tightly controlled environment. His canny streetwise puncher in way over his head is little short of brilliant and he’s such a enjoyable distraction that SF fans might miss the story’s resemblance to “Arena,” Fredric Brown’s classic 1944 short story later re-litigated as Kirk v. Gorn on the original Star Trek. That the man had a bright future behind him was evident by an episode of The Wild, Wild, West titled “The Night of the Vipers” that became his last-ever TV role, airing about a month before his death. Nick pretty much walks through his part as a formidable but crooked sheriff and looks a little haggard doing it. He seems to be winded and straining a bit to project himself.

Nick’s final appearance in a made-in-Hollywood theatrical feature was among a handful of unbilled celebrity cameos in Don’t Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966), a low-budget cornball comedy now revered by a daft microcult as Morey Amsterdam’s Citizen Kane. Adams’ last three pictures were released posthumously. He played the hard-driving lead in Fever Heat (1968), a regional stock-car melodrama shot in Iowa by future Christian Rapture movie auteur Russell S. Doughten and picked up by Paramount for the redneck circuit. Also released in 1968 were Mission Mars (a notoriously bad Z-grade SF thriller done in Miami with Darren McGavin, then also resident in the Hollywood doghouse) and Los asesinos (a western shot in Mexico City with Pedro Armendariz, Jr. and a bevy of strikingly beautiful female co-stars), the last-named experience fun enough for Nick to recall cheerfully to longtime bud Robert Conrad when the Wild, Wild West star was in the hospital after another botched stunt. This wasn’t long before the end and Adams’ career prospects were apparently nil. His last known movie project had been canceled early in 1968 without anyone telling him. One of the last of his peers to see him alive was Susan Strasberg, who found him in an airport bar in Rome despondent and morose.

Adams with Charlie Weaver (Cliff Arquette) in

On February 7, 1968, an ex-LAPD cop turned lawyer turned Nick’s personal fixer named Ervin Roeder grew concerned over his always energetic pal’s sudden lack of activity. Breaking into the actor’s rented Beverly Hills house, he found the thirty-six year-old Adams sitting on the bedroom floor fully clothed and stone dead.

There followed a public uproar with LA’s famously hamfisted coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi settling upon a massive dose of paraldehyde as what sent Johnny Yuma to Boot Hill in such abrupt style. Nick had been mixing the stuff (legally obtained and commonly used to see withdrawing alcoholics through delirium tremens) with Promazine, an early anti-psychotic sedative prescribed to treat seizures and, in the United States, no longer legally usable on humans. Paraldehyde is a fast-acting hypnotic; addictive, foul-tasting and tricky to use. Amounts as small as 25 ml have been known to kill and overdoses typically induce a quick coma in which the doser dies slowly over a period of hours. These are no party drugs, but rather indicate presence of extreme and unbearable nervous tension; perhaps even prior addiction to some other substance, likely other misused medication. The state of mind implied by this kind of intake was so horrifying to contemplate that Noguchi left the question of accident or suicide open. Very few who knew him thought this eternally busy and optimistic scrapper capable of such a thing, but that is sometimes the way with suicides. At rock-bottom least, Nick needed a minder but didn’t have one. His chum Roeder was just as luckless - in 1981, he and his wife were gunned down in the lobby of their apartment building by the usual unknown assailants.

Family buried Nick back in Pennsylvania under a suitably ornate headstone and The Rebel rode off into the same limbo that swallowed every other black & white television western of the era. Indeed, it made the trip somewhat earlier than many, since by the late 1960s, pretty much no sane TV programmer wanted any strip-syndicated reminder of the Confederacy running on his station and certainly not one starring a dead junkie actor.

Up against the wall, Robert E. Lee.

Deprived of this quirky, deeply personal series for a legacy, Nick’s own legend dwindled to his very few roles in films kept alive by horror/SF freaks, along with the occasional salacious namedrop in memoirs, biographies, and assortments of recycled wire-service gossip dished by a credulous tenured professor as yet another Secret History of Hollywood. He’s sometimes namechecked as a part of a supposed curse associated with either Elvis (later also found dead of a pharmaceutical cocktail) or the cast of Rebel Without a Cause, lumping Nick’s self-sendoff with James Dean’s fatal car accident, Sal Mineo getting knifed to death in a Hollywood alleyway, and whatever (possibly criminal) drink-addled stupidity killed Natalie Wood. Adams is mourned for what his boiling-over talent might have yet accomplished, but this seems to miss the point of the guy’s life entirely. He spent almost all his clipped adult span in singleminded, heartbreaking pursuit of something that, once caught, killed him. American life provides few starker examples of a man whose time was, in every sense, all used up.

Time may yet retrieve The Rebel though. Our national culture now rattles with the specter of another Civil War, but at least half the likely contestants look to be veteran couch potatoes and laptop bombardiers scarcely fit for the considerable rigors of 21st century asymmetrical warfare, even if commute time gets shaved to mere seconds. Few will remember the wrongheaded, doomed, nobly individualistic, intensely private struggle of Johnny Yuma come the next Gettysburg, if we bother staging it. An AR-15 or Uzi are as one with Grampy’s fowling piece when measured against helicopter gunships and drone-guided missiles after all, and this latest spate of panic-stricken populist reaction will likely end in a style less Appomattox and more Animal House.

At some near point, the bulk of the 20th century racist Right will die off, some thrashing like fat mastodons, others grateful for the peace extinction brings. Anon, we as a nation will Meet the New Boss, an individual, entity, or collective unlikely in most particulars to resemble the Old Boss. Longer term, statesmen predict scarcity, violence, and disaster as among the thousands of fabulous prizes awaiting the rising generation. Already we see outlines of an appropriate context for the blighted, blood-drenched black & white world of Johnny Yuma, his kepi elevated to obscure fashion statement but his anger plausible enough. At that point in our national development, a beady-eyed deadly Kid Redneck pistolero with literary flair and a Jersey City accent you can cut grits with will seem like an Idea Whose Time Has Come.

Up against the wall, Robert E. Lee. This is a stick-up.