Wild Facts About The Female-Led Western The Big Valley

The hit 1960s series The Big Valley wasn’t a typical western. Instead of a male lead, the series brought something new to the screen, a hard-as-nails leading lady.

A wide range of people gathered around the television to watch the tale of the Barkley family. Now, it’s time to ride into some behind-the-scenes moments and fun facts about the show’s actors. Plus, we’ll learn where the Barkley clan went after the series came to a final wrap.

Lee Majors Before The Big Valley

Lee Majors Before The Big Valley
CBS
CBS

Lee Majors’ first Hollywood role was at the age of 25. It was uncredited, but he appeared in the horror film Strait-Jacket. After a small role in an episode of the series Gunsmoke, it didn’t take long for the actor to get his first starring role, in the episode “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

As a matter of fact, both of those projects just so happened to be the very same year, 1965!

Lee Majors After The Big Valley

Lee Majors After The Big Valley
ABC
ABC

After the Big Valley, something interesting happened to Lee Majors. He turned into a pop culture icon. In the 1970s, he was cast as USAF Colonel Steve Austin, a bionic ex-astronaut in the TV film The Six Million Dollar Man.

Well, the film became so popular that the people of ABC decided a series was in order. The show found international success, turning Majors into a pop icon and even paving the way for the spin-off The Bionic Woman.

Barbara Stanwyck Lived For Two Things: Work And Work

Barbara Stanwyck
ABC
ABC

Actress Barbara Stanwyck had a rough childhood. Orphaned at the young age of four, the actress lived in and out of foster homes for a lot of her life. By the time she was 14, Stanwyck had dropped out of high school to work as a package wrapper in a department store.

According to one of the actress’ directors, Jacques Tourneur, Stanwyck lived for two things in her life, and both of them were work.

Peter Breck Had One Of The Fastest On-Screen Draws

Peter Breck Had One Of The Fastest On-Screen Gun Draws
ABC
ABC

Actor Peter Breck was no stranger to playing an onscreen cowboy. Aside from playing Nick in The Big Valley, Breck sported a bucket hat in the series Maverick and the western series Black Saddle.

Playing a cowboy in each series allowed Breck to get good at a very particular talent — gun slinging. According to Wildest Westerns magazine, Breck drew his prop weapons in 16/100ths of a second, making him the quickest draw in TV history.

Richard Long Became An Actor By Accident

Richard Long Became An Actor By Accident
ABC
ABC

Considering how popular Richard Long became during his time in Hollywood, giving stand-up performances in series such as The Big Valley and films like Cult of the Cobra, it might be interesting to learn that he never intended to become an actor.

In fact, Long was “found” by mistake. According to the actor, he took senior drama because it was an easy class. It just so happened that casting director Jack Murton saw him perform in the school play, talking him into acting as a career path.

Lee Majors Was All About Sports

Lee Majors Was All About Sports
ABC
ABC

While attending Middlesboro High School, Lee Majors ran track and participated in football. It was actually the latter that earned him a scholarship to Indiana University. Eventually, he transferred to Eastern Kentucky University.

It was there that he suffered from a back injury while playing football and ending his collegiate career. However, that didn’t stop the St. Louis Cardinals from offering Majors an invitation to try out for the team. He opted out, deciding to make his way to Hollywood instead of pursuing his first career path as a football player or coach.

Linda Evans And Barbara Stanwyck Were Practically Neighbors

Linda Evans And Barbara Stanwyck
Joan Adlen/Getty Images
Joan Adlen/Getty Images

Linda Evans and Barbara Stanwyck weren’t just close on The Big Valley set; the on-screen mother and daughter were also close in real life. So close that Evans called the older actress “mom,” even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

According to People, the two actresses even lived down the street from one another. Of course, it took some time for them to get to that point. Apparently, Evans wasn’t the best listener on set, which annoyed the more seasoned actress.

Barbara Stanwyck Before The Big Valley

Barbara Stanwyck Before The Big Valley
Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

Before actress Barbara Stanwyck was cast as the leading lady in The Big Valley, she was already a well-known star. Making her acting debut on stage at the age of 16, Stanwyck knew she was in for a life in the spotlight.

She got her major break in 1930 when she starred in the romantic drama Ladies of Leisure. From there, the actress went on to appear in a number of films, including Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, and The Lady Eve.

Barbara Stanwyck After The Big Valley

Barbara Stanwyck After The Big Valley
ABC
ABC

After her film career declined and The Big Valley ended, Barbara Stanwyck didn’t leave the entertainment industry. She actually went on to appear in several shows. In 1983, she portrayed the character Mary Carson in the ABC miniseries The Thorn Birds.

The performance earned the actress her third Emmy Award. She then went on to guest star in Dynasty, a role which she reprised in the spin-off series The Colbys.

Peter Breck Was A Professional Basketball Player

Peter Breck
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Before becoming an actor and making it big in Hollywood, actor Peter Breck did something a bit unexpected. Well, maybe not too unexpected, considering how athletic he comes across in his film and TV roles.

Even so, it might surprise fans to learn that, once upon a time, Breck was a professional basketball player. For the 1948-1949 season, Breck played for the Rochester Royals, now known as the Sacramento Kings.

A Costume Was Recycled From Gone With The Wind

A Costume Was Recycled From Gone With The Wind
ABC
ABC

Actress Barbara Stanwyck might have failed to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but she did get to see a little bit of what it’s like to wear a costume from the Academy Award-winning film.

Nick’s girlfriend can be seen wearing a knit gray jacket with red trim in The Big Valley episode “The River Monarch.” That sweater is actually recycled. It was worn by Olivia de Havilland, the actress who plays Melanie Wilkes in the film.

Charles Briles Left The Show For The Army

Charles Briles Left The Show For The Army
ABC
ABC

During the first season of The Big Valley, actor Charles Briles played Eugene, the youngest Barkley child. A medical student, Eugene was a minor character, unlike the rest of the Barkley clan.

It was a good thing, too, since Briles had to leave the show after receiving his draft notice. In lieu of going to Vietnam, he opted to volunteer for the California National Guard. Instead of recasting, the character Eugene was written out of the show.

Richard Long Before The Big Valley

Richard Long Before The Big Valley
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Before Richard Long was Jarrod Barkley in The Big Valley, he was making his way through Hollywood. After impressing co-star Orson Welles with his first-ever role in Tomorrow Is Forever, Long went on to appear in numerous films.

He didn’t get his first lead role until after returning home from the Korean War. It was in the 1955 black and white horror movie Cult of the Cobra, opposite actress Faith Domergue.

Richard Long After The Big Valley

Richard Long After The Big Valley
Walt Disney Television
Walt Disney Television

For four seasons, Richard Long was one of the main Barkley’s in The Big Valley. But after the series came to an end in 1969, Long didn’t go far from the world of television. A year later, he was cast as one of the lead actors in the sitcom Nanny and the Professor.

He played the role of Professor Harold Everett for three seasons, including lending his voice for two animated films. His final projects were the TV films Death Cruise and The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped.

The Spin-Offs Weren’t Successful

The Spin-Offs Weren't Successful
ABC
ABC

With its loyal fanbase, The Big Valley producers attempted to capitalize off the series’ popularity by scripting two spin-off shows. They never got off the ground. The first spin-off was meant to follow the story of Sheriff Dave Barrett, starring Van Williams.

The second was meant to star Sajid Khan, the actor who played the visiting Indian prince in the episode “The Royal Road.” Neither made it to the screen.

Peter Breck Before The Big Valley

Peter Breck Before The Big Valley
FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Studying English and drama in school, Peter Breck always knew he wanted to get into the entertainment industry. Some of Breck’s first projects were stage performances, but he soon found himself guest-starring and appearing on some popular television shows, including Sea Hunt and Gray Ghost.

It took a few years, but Breck finally broke into film with the leading roles of Stephen Tremayne in the drama Lad: A Dog, Johnny Barrett in Shock Corridor, and Steve Curan in The Crawling Hand.

Peter Breck After The Big Valley

Peter Breck After The Big Valley
ABC
ABC

Even after his time as Nick Barkley on The Big Valley, Peter Breck stayed in the entertainment industry. At first, he appeared in numerous series, like Mission: Impossible, The Dukes of Hazzard, and even with his former co-star, Lee Majors, in The Six Million Dollar Man.

Most impressively, though, is his acting school. In the mid-1980s, Breck was asked to teach film technique classes. The weekly class soon became The Breck Academy, a full-time school that the actor ran for ten years.

More Than One Cast Member Served In The US Military

More Than One Cast Member Served In The US Military
ABC Warner Bros. Television
ABC Warner Bros. Television

Whether before, during, or after their time on The Big Valley; more than one cast member served in the United States military. Richard Long was drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War in 1950.

In the 1940s, Peter Breck served in the United States Navy. And instead of heading to Vietnam in the 1960s, Charles Briles opted to volunteer for the California National Guard. Briles is the only one out of the three that decided to leave the show in favor of service.

Linda Evans Before The Big Valley

Linda Evans Before The Big Valley
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Born Linda Evenstad, the soon-to-be actress only got into the art as a way to help with her shyness. She never expected to make it a full-time career. But it’s a good thing she did! Changing her last name to Evans once she started her career, she earned her first guest-starring role in the sitcom Bachelor Father.

Evans then went on to appear in various other series, including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Wagon Train, and The Lieutenant.

Linda Evans After The Big Valley

Linda Evans and John Forsythe
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

After her role as Audra Barkley in The Big Valley came to an end in 1969, Linda Evans continued in Hollywood. At first, she accepted multiple guest-starring roles across television; Evans finally landed a starring role as Krystle Carrington in the soap opera Dynasty.

Evan’s performance in the series earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Drama Series and was nominated for the same award for the next four years, from 1982-1985

Lee Majors Had To Turn Down Midnight Cowboy

Lee Majors
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In The Big Valley, Lee Majors portrayed Heath Barkley, the illegitimate son of Tom Barkley. Because of his excellent cowboy characteristics, he was selected to star as Joe Buck in the Academy Award-winning film Midnight Cowboy, opposite Dustin Hoffman.

Unfortunately for Majors, he couldn’t get out of his contract with the series after it was renewed for a new season. As a result, he had to turn down the film offer, a role that ultimately went to Jon Voight.

Airplane! Makes A Reference To The Show

Airplane! Makes A Reference To The Show
ABC/Getty Images
ABC/Getty Images

Even though The Big Valley aired its last episode in 1969, that didn’t stop an ’80s movie from referencing the popular series. The 1980 comedy film Airplane! pays homage to the series’ knack for drama by way of the air traffic controller, Johnny.

In the scene, Steve McCroskey complains about a pilot who cracked under pressure. The complaint prompts Johnny to say, “It happened to Barbara Stanwyck! Nick, Heath, Jarrod – there’s a fire in the barn!”

A Film Was Almost Made

A Film Was Almost Made
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In July of 2009, a feature film of The Big Valley was in the works. Starring Susan Sarandon and then Jessica Lange in the coveted role of Barkley matriarch Victoria Barkley, the film was never completed.

In 2012, the project was put on hold indefinitely when the director, Daniel Adams, was charged with fraud for two of his other films. He was then sued by The Big Valley investors and the film was halted.

The Show Was Phased Out In Favor Of “Modern TV”

The Show Was Phased Out In Favor Of
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

While The Big Valley‘s ratings weren’t the highest, the series was still wildly popular from its first episode in 1965. The 1969 cancelation came not because people weren’t watching the show but because westerns were beginning to phase out of primetime television.

Instead of renewing The Big Valley for another season, ABC opted to cancel the series altogether in favor of a more modern show. According to Ella Smith’s 1973 biography, the show’s timeslot didn’t help matters.

More Than One Stuntman Was Used

Barbara Stanwyck
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Even in the 1960s, showrunners didn’t want the talent getting hurt performing wild stunts. That’s why each of the Barkley characters had their own stuntmen. In fact, the stuntmen were used quite extensively in the series.

Between all of the horseback riding, gun-slinging fights, and fistfights, producers weren’t about to risk one of the actors getting injured, resulting in the potential delay of episodes or an entire season. No need for Mama Barkley to fall off a horse!

Lots Of Television Personalities Appears On The Show

More Than One Television Personality Appears On The Show
ABC
ABC

The Big Valley was a huge draw to some noteworthy television personalities. It was a popular show, and many people wanted a piece of the action, including game show host Regis Philbin. He appeared n the episode called “The Challenge.”

Some of the other big names that guest-starred on an episode of the series are comedian Milton Berle, actor William Shatner, actor Richard Dreyfuss, and comedic actress Cloris Leachman.

Barbara Stanwyck Was Dubbed “America’s Favorite TV Actress”

Barbara Stanwyck Was Dubbed
Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images
Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images

Actress Barbara Stanwyck was a very popular actress throughout the 1940s. She was wildly recognized for her work, garnering multiple Academy Award nominations during the time.

In 1967, a year after the first episode of The Big Valley aired, Stanwyck was named “America’s Favorite TV Actress” by Photoplay magazine. One of the first fan film magazines on the market, the recognition was a huge honor for the actress, especially considering the publication launched what’s considered the first significant annual film award.

It Was A Short-Lived Comic Book

It Was A Short-Lived Comic Book
ABC
ABC

Many films and TV shows get various adaptations. For The Big Valley, one of the adaptations came in the form of a comic book. Published by Dell Comics, The Big Valley found itself on the pages of a graphic novel for a solid six issues, from 1966-1969.

That was pretty much the duration of the show. The interesting part about the comic series, though, is that each cover was a photo from the show.

Lee Majors & Linda Evans’ Big Break Was The Big Valley

Lee Majors & Linda Evans Big Break Was The Big Valley
Collection/Getty Images
Collection/Getty Images

While a lot of his co-stars were big-name actors by the time they were cast in The Big Valley, that was not the case for Lee Majors or Linda Evans. Both of their big breaks were the western series.

After beating out 400 possible actors for the role of Heath Barkley, including Burt Reynolds, Majors finally got the big Hollywood chance he was looking for. The same goes for Evans, who won the role of Audra Barkley just five years after her start as an actress.

Barbara Stanwyck Won A Primetime Emmy

Barbara Stanwyck Won A Primetime Emmy
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

On The Big Valley, actress Barbara Stanwyck played matriarch, widow, and ranch-owner Victoria Barkley. Her portrayal of the character was so well-liked that Stanwyck was awarded a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

While that was the only time she won an Emmy for the role, it didn’t stop her from grabbing multiple nominations, including two more Primetime Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for Best TV Star – Female.