Saturday, February 11, 2012

RIP, Nick Barkley

I was sad to read that one of my childhood icons, Peter Breck, died earlier this week at the age of 82. He was best known as the actor who played Nick Barkley, the mercurial middle brother on The Big Valley.

I got hooked on The Big Valley when my sister Bev and I used to stay up to watch it in the late 1960s. She was seven years older than me, and up until then, we hadn’t liked each other—she was the haughty teenager who knew everything, and I was the geeky little sister who’d replaced her as the baby of the family. But, slightly bleary-eyed and watching TV after the rest of the house had gone to bed, for some reason we bonded over shows like The Big Valley and Marcus Welby, M.D. At first, we just sat in silence together. But eventually we started making fun of those shows—laughing at bad dialog and implausible plot twists*. We’ve been laughing ever since.

The Big Valley gets kind of a bad rap these days. Of course, Gunsmoke lasted longer, Maverick was cooler, and Have Gun, Will Travel had that great theme song**. But for me, The Big Valley trumped them all. This was largely due to my raging crush on Lee Majors, who managed to get through four years of playing the sullen brother, Heath, without cracking a smile more than twice. There were other things to love, too: We had Richard Long as the sensible brother, Jarrod, who always followed his moral compass while the rest of the family started bar fights, fell in love with swindlers, and generally made bad decisions. Then there was (Miss) Barbara Stanwyck as the steely matriarch, Victoria, and Linda Evans playing the slightly dim daughter, Audra***. And then of course there was Peter Breck as the brawling Nick, iconic in his neckerchief and black gloves.

For the first couple of seasons, the show placed all its bets on the hunky Majors, who seemed to have been recruited mostly for his tanned torso. Poor Peter Breck was often lost at the wayside as the impulsive, less photogenic Nick, a man who had a five o’clock shadow even at breakfast and rarely took off those gloves. (Now nearing 50, I can’t help wondering: psoriasis?) But without Nick, that show would have been a brooding mess—Jarrod and Heath would have pondered everything to death, and Audra would have been murdered by about eight different psychos. So, while Heath was out chopping wood with his shirt off, Nick was doing the dirty work—smacking the bad guys (and the occasional bystander) and shouting what needed to be said. Nick was the great air-clearer, the icebreaker, the jester who jumps in and stirs everyone up. In a way, he was the true hero of the show, the one who really ran the ranch and broke heads to get it done.

Maybe every family needs a loudmouth like Nick. Or maybe, as I discovered, sitting in the living room with my sister all those late nights, maybe it doesn’t matter who’s the shouter and who’s the thinker. What matters is that they’re family. You rode in with them, and at the end of the day—if you’re lucky—maybe they’ll be there to help you bring the cattle in.

*You just can’t bring up this sort of thing without mentioning Mystery Science Theater 3000. People tend to fall into two camps about MST3K; I’m in the Joel Hodgson camp. I like Mike Nelson too, but Joel would never have let so many sexist jokes into the scripts.

**A couple of years ago, during a Big Valley binge, I came up with words for its theme song:
Nick and Heath…and Jarrod are boys…and Audra’s a girl…
and they all…are…still living with their mom…
Barbara Stanwyck!

***I never identified with Audra; most of her subplots involved her falling for one unscrupulous man or another, and she had a weird, clingy relationship with her mother. I have this vision of her, after all these years, still unmarried and living in that big house. She still puts on a satin dress every morning, and Silas, who’s about 105 now, still offers her pots of tea and tells her when there’s somebody at the door. Her mom is long gone, shot dead one day by bounty hunters when they mistook her for a lady outlaw in her bandolero hat and peg-legged riding pants. Victoria cracked one of those guys good with a bullwhip before she went down, but there was no arguing with that clean bullet hole in the back of her black leather vest.


  1. Thanks for that I'm a Nick fan as well. There are many Big Valley fans, Check out this link.

  2. Hi Joyce,

    Thank you so much for sending the link to the Valley Dwellers site. I'm enjoying browsing through it, and I especially love the posts with photos of action figures. You all seem to have a great time with it!

    And double thanks for adding a link to my site.