The “Earthiness” of Mark Twain in Western Film & TV

During a presentation I gave at the recent CMTS symposium celebrating the 150th anniversary of Roughing It, I made an offhand comment linking Mark Twain with The Big Lebowski.

The link is a solid one. Joel Coen, who directed and co-wrote the 1998 cult film classic with his brother Ethan, said that Sam Elliott’s cowboy Stranger was inspired not only by the movie adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep but by Mark Twain as well:

“He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it’s the main character that speaks off-screen, but we didn’t want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It’s as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain.”

“The Logic of Soft Drugs,” by Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret in Positif, May 1998

The Twain influence makes sense, considering how The Big Lebowski is set “way out west” in early 1990’s Southern California. From its opening moments, the film evokes our mythologized notions of the Western Frontier. There are the crooning vocals of The Sons of the Pioneers singing “Tumbling Tumble Weeds”; there is the desert sagebrush setting at night; and overlaying it like someone retelling a tall tale around the ol’ campfire, there is Sam Elliott’s soothing baritone narrating it all with “the old earthiness of a Mark Twain.”

There are other connections in the film to the Old West, such as how the Dude (portrayed by Jeff Bridges) comically embodies the frontier’s anarchic spirit rambling around the contemporary “city of angels,” Los Angeles. However, as I made the long trek home from Elmira to Maryland after the weekend symposium was over, I started ruminating about other manifestations Mark Twain has made in our pop culture imaginings of the Wild West.

I don’t mean movie versions of Twain’s books that feature him as a character, such as James Garner’s depiction of Twain in the TV adaptation of Roughing It (2002):

See David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star, for more.

I was thinking more along the lines of the times Twain has shown up out of nowhere as a character in otherwise unrelated TV shows.

Take, for example, old TV Westerns. They were still around when I was a kid back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, which seem almost as distant now as Twain’s era. I don’t remember them, but there are several examples of Twain appearing as a character in classic shows of that genre. He has the most appearances in Bonanza, which ran from 1959 to 1973: “Enter Mark Twain” (1959), “The Emperor Norton” (1966), and “The Twenty-Sixth Grave” (1972).

For more clips of Twain appearances on Bonanza see David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.

The first two occasions have some historical accuracy, relatively speaking. In “Enter Mark Twain,” for example, he is working as a reporter in Virginia City, where the show is set. In reality, a young Twain did write for the Territorial Enterprise during the early 1860s. While in San Francisco later that decade, Twain also knew of an eccentric fellow named “Emperor Norton,” who claimed to be the Emperor of the United States. Years later in a letter to William Dean Howells, Twain would recall how

“It was always a painful thing to me to see the Emperor (Norton I., of San Francisco) begging; for although nobody else believed he was an Emperor, he believed it. … Nobody has ever written him up who was able to see any but his (ludicrous or his) grotesque side; but I think that with all his dirt & unsavoriness there was a pathetic side to him.”

Samuel Clemens to William Dean Howells (September 3, 1880)
For more clips of Twain appearances on Bonanza see David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.

In the Bonanza episode, Twain, who appears to be decades older than he should be, shows up to defend the self-proclaimed emperor against an attempt to have him committed. And of the three performances, Ken Howard’s version of Twain in ’72 probably comes closest to capturing popular notions of Twain’s likeness during his time on the frontier.

For more clips of Twain appearances on Bonanza see David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.

There are other instances of Twain’s travels on the TV Western landscape. I’ve sometimes had Me-TV reruns of The Rifleman playing in the background while working on other things when I was surprised to hear Twain’s name bandied about. I’m pretty sure there are a few times where he’s just being quoted in passing by someone, but there is one time where Twain makes a guest appearance.

See David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.

In “The Shattered Idol” (1961), a surly Mark Twain is stuck in town after the stagecoach he’s riding has wheel trouble. Young Mark McCain is a huge fan who eagerly wants to know what’s going to happen next in the serialized chapter of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to IMDb, Twain snaps at him “that Finn is dead and tells him to go away.” The boy later learns that Twain is terribly grief-stricken over the death of his baby son, Langdon. However, as IMDb correctly points out, Huckleberry Finn wasn’t published until 1884, a little over a decade after Langdon’s sad passing in 1872.

Perhaps the most recent appearance of Twain in a quasi-Western was in the Canadian detective show, Murdoch Mysteries. In “Marked Twain” (2015), William Shatner, of all people, portrays the humorist. According to TV-eh?, Murdoch and friends help protect Twain, who has received death threats for opposing “the way countries like Britain had settled territory around the world through colonization and military force.”

For more of Shatner playing Twain on Murdoch Mysteries, see David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.

Of course, Shatner’s version of Mark Twain calls to mind the time Twain appeared in a show about “space, the final frontier”: Star Trek—The Next Generation. In a popular two-part episode, “Time’s Arrow” (1992), the crew of the Enterprise pursue “malicious, time-shifting aliens” back to early 20th century America. Naturally, they meet an aging Twain there, who gets “transported back aboard (the starship) with the crew and starts pondering the advances made in five centuries of human and intergalactic progress”(IMDb).

Apparently, the actor who played Twain in that episode, Jerry Hardin, so loved performing the part that he went on to create and perform a one-man touring show, Mark Twain: On Man and His World.

These are merely a few examples of how Twain’s iconic persona has perpetuated itself across the sands of time of what The Big Lebowski’s Stranger calls “the whole durned human comedy.” For a longer list of Mark Twain sightings check out David Bianculli’s archive, Mark Twain: Television Star.