Old Corral: Fightin' Mad, Rebel Lad...Nick Adams

Nicholas Aloysious Adamshock was the son of a Nanticoke, PA, coal miner. At 5'8' he wasn't tall enough or handsome enough to be a leading man, but his stubborn determination as Nick Adams and his personal refusal to recognize anything as impossible eventually paid off. With no experience, only a desire 'to be somebody' actor...a chance meeting with Jack Palance led to a role in a New York stage presentation of Tom Sawyer. From there he hitch-hiked to Hollywood in January 1950 and worked all sorts of odd jobs. In 1952 the Coast Guard shanghaied him until 1955. Back in Hollywood, his sheer pluck landed him a role in Mervyn LeRoy's Mister Roberts (1955), which then led to parts in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Last Wagon (1956), and Fury at Showdown (1957) among others, as well as TV guest shots on Wanted Dead or Alive, Cimarron City, Yancy Derringer, Trackdown and others, all from 1955-1959.

Andrew J. Fenady of Toledo, OH, a handsome, black-haired, 30-year-old actor turned writer/producer and his partner, Philadelphia's Irvin Kershner, 35, a soft-spoken former photography instructor at USC and documentary maker, had just completed a sleeper hit, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), and were under contract to Paramount.

Adams knew Fenady and at a 1958 New Year's Eve party began pressuring the producer to write a series for him. Consequently, Fenady came up with Young Johnny Yuma. The premise: after fighting on the losing side in the Civil War, Johnny Yuma sets out to find himself and his values in the western frontier. He gets involved with people, solves problems and brings justice to some bad guys along the way. All the while, keeping a journal of his experiences.

Irvin Kershner was advised he was now director and one-third owner of a half-hour TV series about the wanderings of an ex-confederate soldier, a young writer trying to find himself in the aftermath of the Civil War. As Fenady told TV Collector in 1992, 'My conception of The Rebel was Jack London in the west. (London) was adventurous, he wanted to be a writer, and he couldn't write unless he lived it. That's what set him apart from all the other (TV) pistolleros. He went to war, learned the value of life and learned what it was like to be licked. A lot of his identity was due to that (Rebel) cap he was wearing.'

Johnny Yuma was a man proud of the remnants of his rebel uniform and was often forced to defend himself against slurs directed at him and the bitter defeat of the South. Using both his fists, a Civil War style Dragoon pistol in a cut-off Cavalry-flapped holster and what Yuma called his 'scattergun,' (a sawed off double barrel shotgun altered at both ends, formerly owned by his father -- usually strapped to his leg) Adams projected an intensity that belied his slender frame.

Originally accepted by Dick Powell at Four Star, Goodson-Todman was shopping for a Fall western and learned of the script. They liked it and offered to finance the series in return for half ownership. Powell released Fenady/Kershner/Adams and they formed Fen-Ker-Ada Inc. to produce The Rebel which began on ABC October 4, 1959, a date that was also Fenady's 31st birthday and Kershner's first wedding anniversary.

As Fenady explained, 'The first episode laid the groundwork for what we were to know of Yuma's background.' Two years after the war is over, Yuma goes home to the fictitious town of Mason City, AZ. His only family is an aunt and his father, the sheriff, whom he finds has been killed by a band of outlaws (led by Dan Blocker), who have taken the town hostage. Incidentally, that was the last thing Dan did before he did the pilot of Bonanza. Yuma's extended family (was) newspaper editor Elmer Dodson (played by John Carradine).

'Unlike some leading men who'd be self-conscious at a five-foot-eight stature,' Fenady recalls, 'Some of these guys we would cast were pretty big. And I'd say, listen Nick, this guy's six feet.' He says, 'I don't care. The bigger they are the harder they fall. I'm The Rebel, I can lick anybody!' He wasn't like some of these guys who are afraid to have a tall guy next to him; he didn't care.'

Nick soon married actress Carol Nugent, a blonde who appears in a black wig as an Indian on the third episode, 'Yellow Hair.'

The Rebel replaced Colt .45 in its Sunday night 9-9:30 ET timeslot. With Colt .45, Maverick and Lawman as its Sunday night lead-in, Nick Adams' The Rebel did well in the ratings opposite G. E. Theatre on CBS and The Chevy Show on NBC. 76 black-and-white half hour episodes were aired over two seasons through June 18, 1961 (with reruns until Sept. 1961). It was a sponsor mix-up that ended The Rebel, replaced by Bus Stop in Sept. 1961.

Justifiably proud of The Rebel, Fenady said, 'In almost all the episodes I snuck in a little something from the Bible, a historical quote, we tried to put in just a little bit of philosophy, a little poetry. In one episode ('Ballad of Danny Brown') Tex Ritter played a sheriff who was afraid when a gunfighter was gonna come back (after release from) prison, that he would lose his nerve and not be able to stand up to him. What happened was, when the gunfighter came back, instead of being like Miller in High Noon, he was a broken old man; there was nothing to be afraid of. My favorite episodes are the pilot; 'Yellow Hair' -- that's the one where he got that eagle claw he wore around his neck. It was given to him by Satanta, (an Indian chief played by Rudolph Acosta) and it protected him in Indian territory. My third favorite was 'Johnny Yuma at Appomattox.' Johnny Yuma wanted to prolong the war by assassinating General Grant. He hid upstairs in an attic, took aim at him while Lee was surrendering, but when he heard the gracious and generous terms Grant had allowed Lee, he broke down and cried and said, 'The war is over, we are all brothers again.' They don't make half-hour movies like that anymore.'

Another classic episode is 'Night on a Rainbow,' about Civil War-related drug addiction. It was so controversial that it was at first pulled from the air, but finally was broadcast to overwhelming reaction on May 29th, 1960.

Filming for The Rebel was done at Thousand Oaks, Corriganville, Bronson Canyon and the Paramount backlot (sharing space with Bonanza).

Finally, back together with the episode on the upcoming Timeless Media DVD box set, is the well-known original 3/4 time theme song to The Rebel for which A. J. Fenady wrote the 'fightin' mad, rebel lad' lyrics to Dick Markowitz's music sung by Johnny Cash. Due to legalities the song was replaced in recent years by a generic instrumental.

Nick Adams' death on February 5, 1968, at the young age of 36, brought forth the usual suicide rumors. Fenady does not agree with the speculation. 'He was taking medication prescribed for him. I think he had taken a bunch of the stuff, tried to get to sleep, woke up in the middle of the night and just reached in and grabbed another handful and took too many and it killed him. I'm sure that it was not intentional. Nick was a relatively happy guy and he was very close to his kids, Jeb and Allison, and (although divorced) he still saw his wife.'

Fenady went on to write and produce TV's Branded with Chuck Connors and Hondo with Ralph Taeger as well as Chisum (1970) with John Wayne, among others. Kershner's career saw him later direct Face In the Rain (1963), Flim Flam Man (1967), Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and James Bond's Never Say Never Again (1983).

Asked what it was that made audiences take to Nick Adams, Kershner once replied, 'I think it is because he gives freely of himself. Tell him you want to break his neck in the next scene, and he says, 'Sure, just be sure you've got a doctor.''

Boyd Magers has been the editor and owner of  Western Clippings for 21 years, focusing on Western movies, television and more.