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The Oregon Trail (1976-77)

Rod Taylor played Evan Thorpe, a widower with three children heading from Illinois to a new life in the Oregon Territory in 1842.

The pilot movie opens on Thorpe's wedding day. He marries Jessica (Blair Brown), two years after the death of his first wife, Mary. The next day, farmer Thorpe, his new bride and his three children head off to join a wagon train that's headed to Oregon for better land and a better life.

By the time the series aired more than a year and a half later, the cast no longer included a wife for Evan, but he did find a romantic interest in fellow traveler Margaret Devlin (Darleen Carr). Although illiterate, Thorpe was respected for exhibiting a great deal of "horse sense" and takes over as captain of the wagon train after the original leader proves unreliable.

Co-stars on the short-lived series also included Andrew Stevens (son of actress Stella Stevens) as Thorpe's eldest son, and Charles Napier, who appeared with Taylor a decade later in "Outlaws," as scout Luther Sprague.

The "Oregon Trail Gift Book," distributed in 1978 in the United Kingdom for the BBC's airing of the series, noted Taylor's enthusiasm for the series and its subject:

When he was offered the starring role in "The Oregon Trail," he jumped at this new opportunity. All the people who worked with him in the series were impressed by his zeal and his insistence for accuracy and authenticity.

His art training came in handy when he was asked to sketch how he saw the character of Evan Thorpe. The costume, weapons, implements were exactly right and so he was asked to do the same for the other characters in the series. He spent weeks of painstaking research.

In the show, the travelers along the Oregon Trail had to overcome all sorts of adversity -- rugged mountains, roaring rivers, hostile Indians and outbreaks of cholera. But the NBC series faced adversity of another sort: It was scheduled in the same slot as ABC's "Charlie's Angels."

"The Oregon Trail" debuted with a pilot in January 1976. The series began Sept. 21, 1977, and lasted only a month. The show was cancelled by NBC after six episodes, but most of the episodes aired on BBC in the United Kingdom.

A videotape called "Death on the Oregon Trail" was released in 1995 that is a compilation of two episodes: "Hannah's Girls" and "The Man Who Wouldn't Die." A DVD box set was released on April 12, 2010, that contains all 14 shows -- the pilot and 13 episodes.


Pilot -- The Oregon Trail -- Jan. 10, 1976

The pilot movie is a fine drama, with a rough-hewn feel. The hardships of the trail come through -- broken axels, storms, Indian raids, sickness and sacrifice. It's a quality show that seems as though it should have succeeded. Guest stars included Blair Brown, David Huddleston, Douglas Fowley, Linda Purl, G.D. Spradlin, Andrew Stevens, The guest cast also includes Wilford Brimley (credited as A. Wilford Brimley) in one of his earliest roles.

1.1 -- "Hard Ride Home" & 1.2 "The Last Game" --
Sept. 21, 1977

Guest stars of this two-part season opener include William Windom, who plays the father of Darleen Carr's character, Margaret Devlin. Wilford Brimley returns as a different character than in the pilot.

1.3 -- "The Waterhole" -- Sept. 28, 1977

Guest stars included Kim Hunter. Scenes from this episode are included in flashbacks during the "Birthday" episode of "Outlaws."

1.4 -- "Trapper's Rendezvous" -- Oct. 12, 1977

Guest stars included Claude Akins.

1.5 -- "The Army Defector" -- Oct. 19, 1977

Guest stars included Kevin McCarthy, who has appeared with Rod Taylor several times, including "Hotel," "The Hell With Heroes," and "Bearcats!"

1.6 -- "Hannah's Girls" -- Oct. 26, 1977

Guest stars included Stella Stevens as the leader of a group of mail-order brides (who actually are a group of "showgirls") who join the wagon train. Romance percolates, but mutual respect arises instead as Hannah helps nurse Evan's daughter back from a bout of cholera.


1.7 -- "Return From Death"
(aka "The Man Who Wouldn't Die")

This episode was not broadcast on NBC, but it is combined with "Hannah's Girls" on a video release titled "Death on the Oregon Trail." It features Evan Thorpe serving as defense attorney for a mysterious man suspected of killing a member of the wagon train. Frontier justice was never so just. (Copyright date: Dec. 6, 1977.)

1.8 -- "The Scarlet Ribbon"

This is a complicated episode that guest starred Donna Mills, William Shatner, Richard Jaeckel and Bill Bixby, who also directed the episode. The first conflict of the episode comes with Bill Bixby's character, who is a gun-runner, supplying stolen Army rifles to the Indians. Evan attempts to capture him and deliver him to the local Army camp, but Bixby escapes. His companion, Donna Mills, remains with Evan and attempts to spark some romance, to no avail. The next conflict arises when Evan arrives at the Army camp and is imprisoned by William Shatner, the master sergeant in charge of the outpost. Donna Mills has some history with him, too. His loyal corporal is played by Richard Jaeckel, who wants to see Shatner get the promotion to officer that he deserves. Alas, Shatner goes a little nutty in his plot to return the rifles, frame Evan as the gun-runner and get his promotion. A gunfight ensues, and Evan prevails.

(Unaired on NBC; copyright date: Dec. 13, 1977; BBC airdate Dec. 20, 1977.)

1.9 -- "The Gold Dust Queen"

Guest star was Susan Howard as wealthy member of the wagon train. She's accompanied by her brother, played by Howard McGillin.

(Copyright date: Jan. 3, 1978.)

1.10 -- "Return of the Baby"

Guest stars included Kim Darby and Gerald McRaney.

(Copyright date: Jan. 10, 1978.)

1.11 -- "Evan's Vendetta"

Guest star was William Smith, another actor who has appeared repeatedly with Taylor: "Darker Than Amber," "The Deadly Trackers," "Bearcats!" and "Masquerade." (Copyright date: Jan. 17, 1978.)

1.12 -- "Suffer the Children"

Guest stars included Brandon Cruz.

(Copyright date: Jan. 24, 1978.)

1.13 -- "Wagon Race" (aka "The Race")

Guest stars included Mariette Hartley, Robert Fuller and Robert Pine. A scout tells Evan that a huge wagon train is headed toward the same supply depot, making Evan worried that there won't be enough food for the people on his wagon train to avoid starvation on the rest of the journey to Oregon. The big wagon train tries to sabotage the wagons in Evan's troop but Evan manages to outsmart and outrace them. Meanwhile, there's a secondary plot involving Mariette Hartley and adultery.

(Copyright date: Jan. 24, 1978.)


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IMDb // Wikipedia

Classic TV Archive:
Episode guide

Rod Rides the Comeback Trail:
Article/interview in New Idea Magazine, Australia, 1977 (PDF)



On YouTube:

Full episode of "Evan's Vendetta" (Dilemma?)

Clip of William Shatner in "The Scarlet Ribbon"


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