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Chris Hicks: Robert Redford cut his teeth on ’60s TV

Before he became an iconic star — in fact, before he ever appeared in a movie — Robert Redford was just another laboring actor grasping for work. And as such, he was cast in quite a few early television programs back in the day.

Most of the episodes in which Redford found work have never been released on home video, including “Maverick,” “Naked City,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Defenders,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” along with quite a few dramatic anthology shows, such as “Playhouse 90,” “Play of the Week,” “Alcoa Premiere” and “The Dick Powell Theatre.” Not to mention several other long-forgotten series.

But a handful of his early TV guest appearances can be found on DVD in specific season sets of “Perry Mason,” “The Untouchables,” “Route 66,” “Twilight Zone,” “The Virginian,” “The Deputy,” “Whispering Smith” and “Tate.”

Big-time movie stars — those that endure, anyway — tend to achieve that status because they have a certain unexplainable something that the camera just loves, and this is evident in even Redford’s earliest work. His low-key, down-to-earth acting style lends a sense of realism that others in these shows sometimes lack, and his impossible good looks draw the viewer’s eye to him every time he’s onscreen.

Redford’s climb to movie stardom was fairly rapid, since his first TV appearance was in 1960 and it was just seven years later that he hit it big with “Barefoot in the Park” — and then just another two years before he achieved superstardom with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

The four Western series mentioned above — “The Virginian,” “The Deputy,” “Whispering Smith” and “Tate” — are NBC programs licensed to Timeless Media Group for DVD release, and somewhere along the way, someone noticed that Redford showed up in episodes of each show, giving way to the bright idea of collecting them on one disc.

Thus was born “TV Westerns Featuring Robert Redford,” available to Redford-philes at the low, low retail price of $7.97.

The disc features four half-hour black-and-white episodes from “The Deputy,” which stars Henry Fonda, though he is barely present, leaving the heavy lifting to Allen Case; “Whispering Smith,” starring Audie Murphy in the role made famous by Alan Ladd in the 1948 movie of that title; and two episodes of “Tate,” an offbeat, short-lived summer-replacement series about a gunslinger (David McLean) with one of his arms immobile due to a Civil War injury.

There is also a color episode from the 90-minute series “The Virginian,” starring Lee J. Cobb as a judge who owns a huge ranch; James Drury as his foreman, the title character; and Mormon actress Roberta Shore as the judge’s daughter. (The show is based on Owen Wister’s classic novel, as well as the 1929 Gary Cooper film version, which was remade in 1946 with Joel McCrea and again in 2000 for TV with Bill Pullman.)

The “Virginian” episode, “The Evil That Men Do,” is by far the best of these, with Redford taking the central role as a bitter paroled ex-con with a huge chip on his shoulder, an orphan who’s been in prison since the age of 15. After he is given an opportunity for rehabilitation by working on the judge’s ranch, his lack of social skills nearly derail the deal when he picks a fight with one of the ranch hands. Eventually, he must prove himself when another paroled con tries to pressure him into robbing the judge. It’s a role that is well served by Redford’s smoldering, internalized acting style, and he runs with it.

The other four episodes are all revenge tales, each with Redford cast as an arrogant hothead. And they are more typical of the massive number of Western TV shows during the 1950s and ’60s, a bit stiff and clichéd, as opposed to the realistic characterizations found in such top-of-the-line series as “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and, yes, “The Virginian.”

“The Deputy” episode, “The Last Gunfight,” with Henry Fonda narrating and appearing in just the opening and closing moments, has Redford as a bullying tough guy determined to prove himself the fastest draw. He is eventually pulled into a competition with a gunslinger (Paul Clarke) as they both attempt to provoke a reformed gunfighter-turned-storekeeper (Charles McGraw) into a showdown. Despite the show’s obvious limitations, Redford is very good and the episode’s climax offers a nice, if abrupt, ironic twist.

The episode of “Whispering Smith” is “The Grudge,” with Redford as a reluctant gunman pushed to be a crack shot by his mother (June Walker), who is blinded by a misguided obsession for revenge against lawman Smith (Murphy), who killed her outlaw husband. A sister (Gloria Talbott) is also in on the scheme as they set up Smith for a frame job, then ultimately lure him into the inevitable Main Street showdown. Again, Redford is nuanced and rises above others in the cast, though Murphy’s natural charisma is also in evidence.

The two episodes of “Tate” have Redford in decidedly smaller roles.

In “The Bounty Hunter,” Redford is shot and killed in the first five minutes after confronting Tate (McLean) with the mistaken notion that he killed his father. (An unrecognizable Robert Culp in heavy character makeup is also in this episode, along with future Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher.)

And in “Comanche Scalps,” Redford doesn’t show up until the last five minutes. Tate’s old friend, now a stone-cold killer (Frank Overton) has been away from his home for two years, but he sees red when he learns that his brother (Redford) has married his girl. In this one Redford has a hothead moment, but in the end takes the pacifistic route, refusing to fight his own brother. (Leonard Nimoy steals the show as a Comanche raider.)

Hey, if you’re a Redford fan and can’t wait for his next big-screen appearance (“The Company You Keep” is on the way but has no firm date yet), these early shows may sate your appetite.

And let’s hope it begins a trend. I’d love to see at set of Robert Duvall's or Gene Hackman’s early TV appearances, among others.