Then Came Bronson was a short-lived American TV series about an existential biker traveling the country in search of... well... adventure? himself? meaning? ... that whole sixties quest thing.
It starred Michael Parks, a good actor who also sang the theme song, and ran for just the one 1969-1970 season in a pack of 26 epsiodes. The run began with a special pilot movie that aired before the official fall season on Monday, March 24, 1969. Unfortunately this excellent pilot film-- at this writing-- is still the only episode available on DVD.
Although I was born in 1964, I actually have distinct memories of this series. I remember watching the cool closing with Parks riding his Harley Sportster to the tune of the theme song "Long Lonesome Highway" [an actual Top 20 hit that somehow never gets played on oldies stations today.]
My other 2 memories are odd ones. I remember my older brother Joe was a big fan who even named a kitten of ours "Bronson" in honor of this show; and I remember that our Dad, a WW2 vet and hard-rock copper miner with no time for "hippies", also loved it... mainly, I think, because he always seemed to love shows with a wandering, traveling theme.
Later, in the mid-80s in Tucson AZ, my apartment roommates and I would watch re-runs of this show on Sunday nights on TV-18, a UHF channel that also showed stuff like Gidget and The Rifleman. I remember we were always impressed by 2 things: the off-beat stories and the distinctive music-- As the clip below indicates, hymns and folk music often set the strange mood. [Once the soundtrack even included "Piney Wood Hills" being sung by lovely guest star/folkie Buffy Ste. Marie.]
Now, comin' up on 30 years later... I have never seen it run on regular TV since then, which is puzzling to me since it is always referred to as a "cult classic."
Viewed today, this pilot episode holds up amazingly well. In fact, I actually like it much better than the similarly themed but heavy-handed and sloppily directed "classic" EASY RIDER. Sometimes you will hear this show called a "rip off" of the Fonda/Hopper film, but the actual fact is that BRONSON was both filmed and released earlier than RIDER. Also, to me at least, the script for BRONSON is quieter and more intelligent... really much more descendant of Melville, Wolfe and Kerouac than the typical "drop-out" fare of the late sixties.
Sometimes people even dis the show because Bronson-- who rode a lightweight bike and sported no leathers at all-- doesn't live up to the label "Biker." I guess that subtracts from "street cred" or something, but it's one of my favorite aspects of the show. Bronson-- in his wool beanie and brown jeans and t-shirt-- is no Hell's Angel or Son Of Anarchy by any means... in fact, he's something you'd never expect form Hollywood: a beatnik pacifist vagabond with literally no agenda at all.
It's just plain cool, man.
The story is pretty simple. in flashback we learn that Jim Bronson is a journalist who has become disillusioned after the suicide of his friend Nick, played by a young Martin Sheen. He decides to buy back the Sportster he sold Nick from Nick's widow, quit his job, and just ride around seeing the country.
Although the original pilot sort of leans toward a "self discovery" theme, the show that developed was even better. The difference was, as I recall, that the regular episodes sort of lost even this original threadbare concept and instead became nothing short of a weird, Zen experiment in TV drama; as Bronson would just happen into situations and then refrain from judging or advising at all. But still, even this pilot is compelling because of the way it juxtaposes Bronson against the conformist world around him as demonstrated by the dialog below -- which can be seen in the Youtube clip I have attatched-- where Parks first utters his catch-phrase "hang in there" to car-bound suburbanite at a stop light:
Well anyway back to the story. Jim meets a girl on the beach named Temple [played well by the fine actress Bonnie Bedelia] who is a recent "runaway bride." She decides to join him in his travels for a couple weeks, all the way to New Orleans. [Perhaps another reason for the common EASY RIDER comparisons. ]
Oddly, we do not get the love story we have been conditioned to expect in a situation like this. In fact, the whole point seems to be that Jim and Temple are kindred souls whose paths cannot truly intertwine for reasons far beyond them... sounds weird I know, but that's the best way I can describe it. The banter is great too:
TEMPLE: Jim, I want to be your friend.
BRONSON: Ya know, when you take on a friend, you take on a lot.
An especially interesting sequence finds them stopping at the desert home of Jim's mentor and father figure, the enigmatic Papa Bear [played by vet character actor Akim Tamiroff in what is said to be his final role.] This guy is a boisterous old artist who live and works with a brood of lively children, and eagerly welcomes Jim's visit. He senses, however, that something is troubling his young friend, and he approaches Jim as a traveler on a road he himself has trod. The quiet dialogue between the two is touching and wise.
Well.. for those who haven't seen the film yet-- and it is available-- I won't say anything more about the plot. It's not so much a matter of "spoilers" either-- I just think you need to experience it yourself with no pre-conceptions.
In short, the pilot of TCB is some classic television. Not just a really great time-piece for looking back at the 1960s, but a film that still offers some quiet wisdom in a unique way.
5 stars out of 5.
Here's the YOUTUBE clip: