(Opening scene...busy city street...a harried businessman at a stoplight turns to his left, where a young man is revving his motorcycle, and asks...)
"Taking a trip?"
"What's that?" "Taking a trip?"
"Oh, I don't know...wherever I end up, I guess."
"Pal, I wish I was you."
"Really?...well, hang in there."
The businessman smiles wistfully and nods. The light changes, and off goes the laconic motorcyclist, gunning it out of the city, toward open space and adventure.
The cyclist is Jim Bronson. Although his economy of speech would not suggest it, he is a freshly ex-newspaperman. A friend, Nick, had recently committed suicide right before his eyes. Jim had been unable to stop him jumping from a bridge. Before Nick lept, he asked Jim to buy back the motorcycle from his soon-to-be widow. Jim had originally owned and customized the bike, then sold it to Nick when he became a reporter.
He began thinking about the meaning of his own life. He decided to quit the rat race, simplify, see the country, visit some old friends and discover what life would put in his path.
This is the 1969-70 NBC series Then Came Bronson, starring Michael Parks.
Easy Rider was a hit in 1969, a movie about two young counter-culture cyclists looking for the "real" America. Perhaps Middle America was not quite ready for that story on the small screen, but Then Came Bronson expressed some of the themes of that movie in a way more palatable to the mass audience (interestingly, the pilot movie was completed before Easy Rider hit the screen, so TCB was not a knockoff.)
The idea of getting back to basics was "blowin' in the wind" at that time. "Natural" food, ecology and hippie communes were other expressions of this philosophy. However, promotional literature assured us that "for the necessities of life, (Bronson) works".
He owned only his motorcycle, his bedroll and the clothes on his back. Those clothes usually consisted of corduroy pants, black tee shirt, leather jacket, and watchcap (according to Michael Parks, he took this costume from the Jack London book, Sailor on Horseback).
The two hour pilot movie told the story of how Bronson began his travels. Martin Sheen played Nick, the friend who bequeathed his motorbike to Bronson. Bonnie Bedelia is a girl he meets who had run out on her own wedding. After a rocky start, Bronson develops feelings for the girl that conflict with his need to continue his journey and come to peace with himself.
The pilot featured a hill climb contest, which Bronson won (remarkable, considering he rode a street-equipped Harley-Davidson Sportster!). The most identifiable feature of the Bronson bike is the insignia on the gas tank, a triangle with an eye in the middle.
While Bronson and the girl were in a diner, a local yokel hopped on the bike and ran it directly off a ramp into the water. It was hauled out and painstakingly disassembled and cleaned up. Soon they were back on the highway.
By the end of the show, the two understand that their life paths must diverge. Good thing, or else there would have been no series!
One of the unique qualities of the show was the natural style of the dialog. Parks played the role in a soft-spoken way, and even mumbles some of the often-improvised lines. This added a more realistic, unpredictable feel to the show.
The motorcycle was almost a character itself. The deep, throaty growl of that 4-stroke Harley engine seemed to give voice to the dream of a life of simplicity and freedom.
One of the co-producers of the series was Robert H. Justman, who had just worked on the original Star Trek as the associate producer (or "ass prod", as TV folk abbreviate it). The Bronson credits reveal several other carryovers from the Star Trek crew as well.
Two particularly memorable episodes:
- "A Pickin' and A Singin'" -Bronson drops into a small diner/nightclub and meets a young songwriter. Bronson teams with him as a singer to win a talent contest. Michael Parks did the singing for this episode himself. He released three albums on MGM of folk/country-tinged songs, including "Mountain High" from this show, plus other standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and "Re-enlistment Blues". Some of these songs showed up on the soundtrack of other episodes. One of the songs, "Long Lonesome Highway", was used as the closing theme for the show and became a top 40 hit. Parks' voice was not commanding, but quite affecting. Elvis' band (James Burton, Ronnie Tutt and Jerry Scheff) backed Parks on the second album, albeit in a much more sedate style than they employed with the King. Excellent music.
- "The Forest Primeval" - Tired of big-city traffic jams, Bronson takes a trail ride in the Los Padres National Forest. The park ranger gives him a map and a warning of impending weather. Bronson misses a downed signpost and takes the wrong path. He is enjoying the scenery so much that he fails to observe an obstruction, and goes head over heels with the bike down a steep incline. He camps out, sleeps, gets up and hammers his bike back into shape. Then he is off again, this time over trailless terrain . While his situation is near desperate, he finds himself contemplating the wonders of the beautiful Big Sur redwood country. As the storm approaches, Bronson feels the power of nature and has intimations of his own mortality. He hunkers down and keeps riding. Just as a posse on horseback is making ready to search for him, he rides, near exhaustion, into their ranch. Later, he talks with the ranger over coffee about the need to preserve this wilderness for his children. Humbled by his experience, he rides back down the trail to the highway.
This unique show only lasted one year on NBC, but continues to be fondly remembered by its fans.
For much more information about the series, visit the Then Came Bronson web site at http://www2.thecia.net/users/jonpf/tcb.htm . It is a multi-page site (nearly 50 at last count, including newsletters posted monthly on the site). Thanks to Jon Foulkes for corrections on some of the details.
Copyright © M. Ransom, 1999
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