We have a religious broadcaster in Atlanta that dedicates much of its evening entertainment on its primary subchannel to ancient black-and-white television shows, from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Some were syndicated shows, while others ran briefly on network TV. One such show was Riverboat, which originally ran on NBC for two seasons, from 1959 to 1961 (31 episodes in the 1959-1960 season and 13 in the 1960-61 season).
The best description I have found for the show is “Wagon Train on a riverboat.” Like Wagon Train, it was an anthology series, this one based around the captain and crew of the riverboat Enterprise. NBC bought into the show as a competitor to ABC’s Maverick, which had lost James Garner, who was replaced by Roger Moore.
The captain of the Enterprise was Grey Holden, played by Darren McGavin. The initial pilot of the boat was Ben Frazer, played by a young Burt Reynolds, who had been cast in an attempt to lure the female viewers of the show. Reynolds left the show after 20 episodes, unable to get along with McGavin; the second season featured Noah Beery Jr. as pilot Bill Blake. Other regulars were, according to Wikipedia:
Dick Wessel, as chief stoker Carney Kohler, was cast in 41 episodes, Jack Lambert was cast in 23 episodes as first mate Joshua MacGregor (having played a different character, Tony Walchek, earlier in the series), John Mitchum co-starred in 10 episodes as Pickalong, the ship’s cook, Michael McGreevey was cast in 17 episodes as cabin boy Chip Kessler, and William D. Gordon played first mate Joe Travis in 13 episodes before his character’s death.
It was considered a Western, even though most of the show’s action took place on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers. It took place during the antebellum period of the South; of some concern was the fact that there were no African American characters or actors, this despite the fact that historically the majority of dock laborers were Black or Creole. The network and sponsors of the show didn’t want to upset the viewers, particularly those in the South. The writers and McGavin felt this was stupid, but that was life during that period.
The remainder of the weekly casts were made up of guest stars, such as Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Jeanne Crain, Mercedes McCambridge, Ricardo Montalban, Vincent Price, Eddie Albert, and in one show Sandy Kenyon as a pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln. A full list of the guest stars can be found here.
The shows were well-written with an eye towards the history of that period. There are Indian conflicts, con men, beautiful women, stowaways, dangerous cargo, and plenty of fisticuffs. As Mary would say, it was better than the average schlock. When it went off the air, it was replaced by The Americans, a show set during the Civil War.
If you get a chance, it’s worth your time to see it.