Roger Davis, the actor, producer and voice-over artist who is most remembered for taking over the role of Hannibal Heyes (a.k.a. Joshua Smith) in the TV series Alias Smith and Jones from his friend Pete Duel after the talented but troubled actor shot himself to death, has often been blamed for the demise of the fondly remembered comic TV Western. However, the real culprit was stiff competition from one of the greatest programs in TV history.
Hannibal Heyes & Kid Curry
Alias Smith and Jones paid homage to the smash hit movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), one of the great cinema blockbusters of all time. The TV series starred Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes, a charming bank robber who has decided to go straight, and Ben Murphy as his partner Kid Curry, a reformed robber cum gunslinger. Duel’s character (who went by the alias Joshua Smith) was inspired by Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy, while Kid Curry (who went by the name Thaddeus Jones) was inspired by Robert Redford’s character The Sundance Kid. (In the movie, Butch and Sundance refer to themselves by the aliases Smith and Jones.) Both Duel and Murphy, whom the producers thought resembled Paul Newman, were Universal Studios contract players.
Roger Davis had actually co-starred with Duel in a pilot about two charming, non-violent grifters adrift in the old West who team up with another confidence artist, a woman played by Joan Hackett. The pilot was not picked up, but the producers were given a second chance, and their riff on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was greenlighted and appeared as a mid-season replacement in January 1971.
The producers called on Roger Davis’ skills as a voice-over artist (he would produce the narration for over 6,000 TV and radio commercials in his career) to narrate the opening of each Alias Smith and Jones episode starring Duel & Murphy. He also appeared as an actor in the episode “Smiler with a Gun,” playing the only person ever killed by Kid Curry.
An intoxicated Pete Duel embraced death in the wee small hours of the morning of Friday, December 31, 1971, his too brief life and promising career snuffed out by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He died before shooting on the 1971-72 season could be completed. Eighteen episodes had been completed, and Duel had been working on Episode #19. Shooting with Murphy continued that Friday and Roger Davis was immediately hired to replace his friend. Davis appeared in the final five episodes of Season Two and all of the 12 episodes in Season Three, when the show was canceled in mid-season.
Roger Davis has been unfairly blamed for some for the demise of Alias Smith and Jones on the grounds that he was unable to fill the boots of the charming and talented Pete Duel. However, the truth is Alias Smith and Jones might not have survived if Duel had lived as it was scheduled in two of the most unenviable time slots in TV history. In its first two seasons, it appeared on Thursday night opposite The Flip Wilson Show, the #2 rated show in America. For the 1972-73 season, ABC switched it to Saturday, where in the initial half-hour of its 8:00-9:00PM time slot its competition was another show that had debuted in January 1971, All in the Family, the top-rated program on television and a genuine ratings phenomenon.
From 1971 to 1976, All in the Family established a record (since equaled) with five consecutive seasons as the #1 rated show. Ironically, The Flip Wilson Show slipped out of the Top 10 to #12 during the 1972-73 season that would prove to be the last for Alias Smith and Jones.
Time Slots & Network Politics
Pete Duel publicly blamed the failure of ABC to pick up Love on a Rooftop, the first of the two series in which he played a lead role, to network politics. ABC did not renew Love on a Rooftop after its maiden 1966-67 season as another producer wanted the time slot, Duel claimed. In interviews with the press after the first season of Alias Smith and Jones, Duel also claimed that ABC had considered moving the show for the 1971-72 season to Saturday night in the 8:30-9:30 slot vacated by the canceled The Lawrence Welk Show, but decided t keep it on Thursday. Duel was disappointed that the network did not move the show to Saturday, as he thought the other slot would be better for his new series. He was very wrong, as it was the move to Saturday night, after Duel’s death, that killed it.
All in the Family had debuted on Tuesday nights at 9:30 on January 12, 1971, and was ranked #34 in its inaugural half-season. (Alias Smith and Jones never cracked the Top 30 in its run of two years over three TV seasons.) After being switched to Saturday at 8:00PM in the 1971-72 season (the season ABC had first considered switching Alias Smith and Jones to Saturday), it quickly ascended to the top of ratings charts. It would prove a more formidable adversary than any Hannibal Heyes & Kid Curry ever met up with on their show, including Danny Bilson, the gunman Roger Davis played in “Smiler With a Gun.”
The Death of the TV Western
Not only was All in the Family a cultural phenomenon (it won 22 Emmy Awards, including Best New TV Series and Best Comedy in its first season in 1971), the once popular TV Western was a dying genre. The F.C.C. had crusaded against the depiction of violence on TV, which was one of the reasons that the networks began canceling Westerns in the early 1970s. The raison d’être of the Western is action, and to get around the F.C.C. proscription on violence, Alias Smith and Jones featured as its protagonists two bank robbers who had decided to go straight. To hammer home the point, the narrator (Roger Davis in the episodes featuring Duel and Murphy) reminded us that in all the bank jobs they had pulled, they had never shot anybody. A Western without action, let alone violence, essentially was a contradiction in terms.
Testament to how the once mighty TV Western had fallen, in January 1973 — the same month ABC ended the run of Alias Smith and Jones — NBC pulled the plug on former ratings blockbuster Bonanza, the most popular TV Western ever. (Three times the #1 show from 1964 to ’67, Bonanza had been ranked #3 in both the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons.) Bonanza joined Alias Smith and Jones in the Happy Hunting Grounds of canceled TV westerns, leaving only the venerable Gunsmoke to cowboy up until it too left the airwaves in 1975.
Roger Davis’ acting career was stymied after the cancellation of Alias Smith and Jones. He continued to appear in guest roles in TV and the occasional low-budget films throughout the 1970s, but acting work became sparse in the ’80s. As a voice artist, he has made over 6,000 commercials on TV and radio. He eventually enjoyed success outside of show business as a real estate developer.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on the Internet Movie Database