Anne McAllister is basking in between-book housecleaning mode. It's a wonderful place to be. It gives her more time to contemplate potential Males on Monday -- and allowed her to think back to one of her very first.
He was actually a Male on Tuesday and I was in junior high.
It was during the time that TV westerns were King of the air waves. There was Gunsmoke and Wagon Train and Cheyenne and Sugarfoot and Bronco and Cimarron City and The Virginian and Bonanza and countless others. Well, actually there were 32 total.
But for me there was only one that mattered -- Laramie.
Laramie ran for four seasons between 1959-1963, always on Tuesday nights.
It was the tale of tough, straight-arrow rancher Slim Sherman, played by John Smith, who was trying to run a small ranch and stage coach stop, presumably near Laramie, Wyoming, while also riding herd on his kid brother, Andy (Robert Crawford, Jr.) aided and abetted by sort of sidekick, older, father figure Jonesy, (Hoagy Carmichael) who kept track of the house and the details.
In later seasons after the death of Hoagy Carmichael and the maturity of Robert Crawford, Jr, the housekeeper was Spring Byington and the orphan boy, Mike, whom they took in, was played by Dennis Holmes.
All pretty much stock sorts of characters and all well and good as far as TV westerns go.
What made the show different? Memorable?
In two words -- Robert Fuller -- who played cowboy-drifter, Jess Harper.
While the lean, dark-haired, blue-eyed actor was definitely easy on the eyes, it was more than his physical attraction that prompted me (and thousands of other girls/women all over the world -- he was probably a bigger box-office attraction in Germany and in Japan than in the US) to breathe a little faster every time an episode centered on him.
The character of Jess Harper -- and the pitch perfect intensity Robert Fuller brought to the role -- was an equal part of the attraction.
Jess was a perfect counterpoint to "the world is black-and-white and there is only one right answer" Slim. If Slim was all about the white-hatted good guy, Jess was forever struggling with moral dilemmas. He was caring and intense and honorable. And the question of honor and how it should be played out in various situations was paramount. Issues were rarely black-and-white to him.
It was this struggle to 'do the right thing' -- even when it cost him dearly -- that made Jess such a compelling character.
I didn't realize it until years later, but Jess's struggles were often the influence behind those my own heroes have had to deal with.
Essentially, while not exclusively, everything I know about heroes I learned from Jess. And I'm not alone.
In 1991 at a workshop where I was speaking, another author, Jessica Douglass, talked about cowboy heroes. It was right before lunch and I was sitting in the back room thinking how hungry I was when she said she'd fantasized about Little Joe Cartwright, played by Michael Landon, being her brother.
But then she said, "And then along came Jess Harper -- and he was definitely not my brother!"
I sat up straight, appalled at the thought that Jess had been two-timing me with her!
Jessica was equally appalled when I brought his infidelity up at lunch. But many long conversations about Jess later, we decided there was definitely something important in the man and in the character if, 30 years later, we were both still writing under the influence, as it were.
We gave a workshop a year and a half later about the appeal of the cowboy hero -- Jess in particular. We talked to Robert Fuller himself preparing for it. (And if you ever want to feel speechless, try picking up the phone one snowy winter evening and, out of the blue, hearing a distinctive gruff baritone say, "Hi, this is Robert Fuller.")
It turned out Jess meant as much to him in a way as he meant to us.
Jess's character, his dilemmas, his need to find the honorable way to deal with life spoke to Robert Fuller with the same intensity that it spoke to us. A man of just as much passionate conviction and concern as the character he played, he said he was never sure where Jess left off and he began.
It was, he said, "the part of a lifetime."
And while he went on, after the show ended, to play the scout, Cooper Smith, on Wagon Train, replacing Robert Horton's Flint McCullough, and then to play Dr Kelly Brackett in the long-running show Emergency during the 1970s, both admirable characters, neither of them had quite the same personal impact as playing Jess.
He liked both the other roles, and is particularly proud of the influence that Emergency had on the public's perception of medical issues at the time. But Jess was a more complex character, one a thoughtful actor could get his teeth into and give even more substance to. It was one of those perfect casting decisions where the actor and the character were a perfect fit.
Laramie's last two seasons, both in color, have been released as DVD boxed sets in the last couple of years. Some of them are dated. They were shot on the back lot in Hollywood on a tight budget and sometimes it shows. But many are surprisingly good. And the ones in which Jess is featured often have more subtext and more real character dilemmas that are worth watching even today.
And, as Jessica would tell you, an episode with a wounded Jess Harper was a wonder to behold. I suppose those of us who haven't spent the last 50 years (dear God, it is!) reliving the Tuesday evening experience of our youth by writing about Jess in many forms, probably became nurses in hopes that we'd get a Jess of our own!
In one of the last roles of his career, Robert Fuller, in homage to Jess, played a modern day Harper hero in Chuck Norris's Texas Rangers. In 2004 he and his wife, actress Jennifer Savidge, retired to a ranch in Texas. But the character he developed and gave life to in Jess Harper is still riding the DVD range.
So if you're short on heroes and want a good example, look no further than Jess Harper, find copies of the DVDs, take a trip down memory lane. I've been doing it lately with the last season's episodes. And as I've been doing it, I realize that watching Robert Fuller play Jess to perfection was one of the most formative experiences of my writing life.
Did you find someone in the books or films or television programs of your early years who taught you what it means to be a hero?
Tell me who and where you found them and you could win a copy of A Cowboy For Christmas, starring my first actual cowboy hero, imaginatively named Jess Cooper!
I'll announce the winner on my blog on Friday of this week.
Anne McAllister has written about 20 cowboy heroes for Silhouette and Harlequin American, and even her Presents heroes, like Christo Savas in One-Night Mistress . . . Convenient Wife, owe a lot to the cowboys in her life (especially Jess).