Thursday, June 18, 2015

Birthday Tribute: Wesley Lau

So today is the great Wesley Lau’s birthday. I watched The Hateful Hero to celebrate, at least for openers, and I’ve been pondering on what sort of original topic I could bring to the post today. I went over all the entries tagged with his name, and to my surprise, I don’t even see any mention of his Virginian characters. He guest-starred on the show three times, twice playing very unusual law enforcement agents.

Wesley’s law enforcement characters are very often similar to Andy, at least on the surface. They are generally very smooth and businesslike in demeanor, but each one is unique in his own way, such as the visionary Captain Gottleib on The Magician.

On The Virginian, Wesley’s first law enforcement character is Sheriff Ben Morris in the season 5 episode Vengeance Trail. He comes across as a not entirely upright fellow, who sanctions and even participates in actions such as burning the surrounding grasslands to force people driving cattle to pass through his town and pay a toll for doing so. Apparently the town is in dire straits and badly needs the toll money.

I don’t remember too much about the episode beyond that, except that for some reason, he and his cohorts were not going to be reported for their actions and were going to keep their jobs. I do seem to recall that towards the end, he either did something upright or else refused to let his comrades take things what he deemed too far. When all is said and done, Morris is honestly trying to do what he feels is best for his town, even if in actuality it isn’t the best thing for either the town or his integrity. But he seems, in some way, to redeem himself by the end. It’s an interesting look at poor Old West towns and what they sometimes resorted to in order to survive.

I remember his character from the season 6 episode The Gentle Tamers far better. He starts out as a mysterious ranch hand who has recently joined the Shiloh crew, just in time to witness a very experimental procedure: three convicts are going to be tried out as ranch hands on the new probation program. If it works out, it could mean important long-term effects for prisoners everywhere.

Wesley’s character, Hoyt, doesn’t seem to like the convicts very much. He’s often mysterious and quiet, and when he does speak, it’s usually in an unfriendly tone of voice, such as seemingly mocking when he accidentally upsets a horse one of them is working with.

Throughout a good portion of the episode, his intentions are not clear. He shadows the convicts when they go into town and eventually ends up in trouble with one of them over a card game back at Shiloh Ranch.

Finally he reveals the full truth about himself: he’s a law enforcement agent undercover to see how the probation idea is coming along. He is deeply against the concept of probation in general, and in a bitterly hurt speech, he reveals why. He used to work at a prison and he saw all kinds of people come through. He never saw anyone that he felt might be worthy of a second chance, except one. But when he tried to give that one the chance, he was betrayed in return. Removing his shirt, he displays the horrific scars of a brutal attack.

Despite how very personal any probation-related case is to him because of that, he is still overall a fair and decent human being. During the climax, the cattle spook and stampede and the convicts have to help round them up. The nastiest one, who had planned to steal the cattle and run, is trampled and killed when he finally tries to do the right thing. The other two, also rounding up the cattle and trying to protect the people, make it through alive. Neither of them had wanted to participate in the other’s unseemly plan. At the end of the episode, Hoyt leaves to report to his superiors. Impressed by the men’s actions, he promises he’ll make a fair report.

Wesley had such an amazing talent throughout his life. He brought characters such as Andy, Sheriff Morris, and Hoyt to life beautifully and made them seem three-dimensional and real. Hoyt, with his gruff exterior, saddening backstory, and honestly good soul, reminds me of a lot of Simon Oakland’s characters. While very different from Andy in a lot of ways, Hoyt’s core fairness and goodness is the same.

Wesley was often asked to play law enforcement characters throughout his career, no doubt because they knew he could deliver. Always excellent, Wesley added a great deal to any show he was cast in, whether that was as a law enforcement agent, military, a common citizen, or a villain. I’m happy to use this day to remember him, although of course, I remember him on every day.

Happy Birthday, Wesley. You are still fondly remembered and loved.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Recurring Characters: Mr. Snell

So. I wasn’t expecting to discover another recurring character. Mr. Snell, Robert Colbert’s district attorney character in The Grinning Gorilla, also appears in The Hasty Honeymooner.

Of course, the end result of that is that Snell really doesn’t come off looking too competent, since he’s the one Perry lobs many legitimate complaints about prejudicial conduct about. And it’s hard to really think of the man otherwise, since this is our only glimpse of him in a courtroom setting. At least poor Hamilton, whose courtroom conduct is very badly written and almost a mirror of Mr. Snell’s in the following episode, The 12th Wildcat, has many opportunities to show that he is competent and that the writing in The 12th Wildcat is really a fluke.

When I previously remembered Mr. Snell only from The Grinning Gorilla, I liked him alright. He seemed competent enough, as did the police. I never really understood Perry screaming “Entrapment!”, since all they did was wait to see if their suspect would come retrieve the check she had previously hidden in the squad car. They didn’t induce her to commit a crime she was otherwise unlikely to commit, which is the definition of entrapment. I suppose it’s a bit of a gray area, but it seemed perfectly fine to me. But in any case, Mr. Snell mentioned having a word with the police about the incident.

It seems like Robert Colbert had a bit of an unlucky streak with his recurring characters. He was also the one unfortunately chosen by Warner Brothers to basically replace the Bret Maverick character after Roger Moore quit the series, citing low-quality scripts for his Beau Maverick character. (While Beau is actually my favorite Maverick, I do have to agree with Roger that the scripts were rather below par, for the most part.) Robert ended up playing a character called Brent Maverick, a third brother to Bret and Bart. In his dress, speech pattern, and mannerisms, as well as his similar name, he was clearly meant to be another Bret. He was aware of this, too, giving the famous quote that he would rather have to cross-dress than do what Warner Brothers wanted of him. The character went over about as well as expected, disappearing after two episodes.

I wonder if they were planning to use Mr. Snell for more than two episodes? I suppose it’s possible that if they had, they would have used the character more favorably, as they did in The Grinning Gorilla. It’s hard to say, since their track record with writing for the prosecutors was up and down. And in season 9, which often wanted to go back to being season 1, there were several very bad “down” ventures.

I would say that it’s interesting in any case to use a recurring character in two different seasons, and only two seasons (unlike more frequent visitors D.A. Hale and Sergeant Landro), but I’ve heard that seasons 8 and 9 were filmed as though they were one big season, a thought which the production numbers back up. Also, it isn’t the first time Perry brings back characters seemingly at random in different seasons. Deputy D.A. Alvin appeared twice in season 4, then disappeared until he very randomly showed up again in season 6. Likewise, Detective Toland of Robbery made appearances in two separate seasons, albeit unlike Alvin, those were consecutive (6 and 7, I believe). It’s kind of neat to see the cast and crew remember these characters sometime after their original appearances.