Can a television show change your life? In my case one did just that.
In the fall of 1970 I had just turned fifteen. On tv there was a show called "Then Came Bronson." It was about a newspaper reporter in San Francisco named Jim Bronson. Disillusioned by the suicide of a close friend, Bronson quit his job, discarded his old life, “dropped-out” and took off on a red Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle, traveling around the country with just the clothes on his back. No responsibilities, no ties, no job, no mortgage, no nuthin’. Just him and his motorcycle. For money and food, he worked when and where he could. Every week brought him into some new town with new people and a new adventure. (It was sort of like "The Fugitive" without Lt. Gerard chasing him around.)
Talk about freedom! Hoo-man, to an idealistic teenager, it didn't get much more romantic than that. I was hooked.
I had "sort of" been interested in motorcycles up to that point. A guy across the street owned a red and white Honda 350, which seemed like the coolest bike on earth at the time although in reality it was quite small as motorcycles go. Bronson's mighty Sportster on the other hand, was awesomely big!
The producers must have spent a ton of money on “Then Came Bronson.” The episodes were all filmed on-location (i.e. not in an L.A. movie studio) in the states surrounding California (Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado...). How expensive must it have been to send a complete film crew on the road for weeks at a time? Holy cow! That would never happen these days. Few shots were done indoors. Many episodes had helicopter aerial shots! What must that have cost?! It's curious that so much money must have been spent on a show that only lasted one season: twenty-six episodes in all (plus the two-hour movie pilot). NBC must have had money to burn back then.
Publicity shot from the made-for-tv movie costarring Bonnie Bedelia.
Granted, Michael Parks was not exactly a major movie star commanding high pay, but he had appeared in a few noteworthy things. And he did ride motorcycles, which helped. And he did sing too, which also helped. Many of the episodes featured songs from his albums (all three of which I bought, of course). And a song of his played over the closing credits, one that became something of a minor Top-40 radio hit (and one that still gets played regularly on XM Radio's 70’s Channel). You may even remember it…
Going down that long, lonesome highway
Bound for the mountains and the plains
Sure ain't nothing here gonna tie me
And I got some friends I'd like to see again
Aside from his riding/singing qualifications, Parks was a peculiar choice to play Bronson. For one thing, he subscribed to the James Dean school of acting - which meant he mumbled and shuffled his way through scenes, relying on shrugs, grunts, farts, and the occasional microscopically raised eyebrow to convey emotion. He must have been a nightmare for Directors. The dialogue, what little there was of it, was often incoherent and/or incomprehensible. You'd find yourself turning the volume all the way up and yelling at the screen, "WHAT? SPEAK UP, DAMMIT!" It was aggravating – oh, man was it aggravating! Television shows shouldn't be that hard to watch. And "Then Came Bronson," to be honest, was.
My brothers and sisters made fun of Bronson unmercifully. But to me the character was the epitome of cool. He was a sensitive and philosophical loner, with a laconic sense of humor and a good understanding of people. Still, he was highly opinionated and was not shy about sharing them. He could fix anything - a stretch, considering that he was a sensitive (ahem) writer from (ahem) San Francisco. (The back-story was that he grew up on a farm.) Aside from the requisite leather jacket, Bronson’s uniform in every episode was a dark blue t-shirt, a pair of corduroy pants, sunglasses and his ubiquitous Navy "watch cap." He was not exactly your typical leading man.
"Bronson" was a clean show. You would never imagine the protagonist doing or dealing drugs, as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper did in the dreadful movie, "Easy Rider." (In a recent radio interview, Parks still referred to Fonda's co-star as "Dennis Hop-head.") No, Bronson was a loner/pacifist drop-out who eschewed violence and almost never raised his voice in anger. Not a bad role model, actually.
What was puzzling about the show was the lack of plot. Many episodes had no discernable plot at all. Bronson would roll into someone's life (usually a pretty girl - sometimes two!) at a critical point, and then spend the next 55 minutes mumbling and shuffling as the situation just sort of resolved itself. Or didn't. There were no car chases, no explosions, no shootouts...no real "drama" of any kind. Just Mr. Mumbles and his rumbling Harley Sportster escape vehicle. The end of every "Bronson" show had him riding off into the sunset like some modern-day cowboy, leaving the audience wondering, "Was there a point to that?" Hey, I say that and I'm a fan! I guess the show was supposed to be the opposite of the car-chase/action genre.
Here's a little three-minute clip of the pilot movie. It's the final scene. Here's the set up:
Bronson ditches his former life and heads out on the road. Right off the bat (as happens in real life), he runs into Bonnie Bedelia, who is herself running away from...something unexplained ("a life of privilege and wealth" is only implied). He lets her ride along with him. They roam around for days, from California to New Orleans and, get this, he never even finds out her name! Yeah, right. (Ah, the wacky, free-wheeling '60s!) Throughout the movie they endure a tense, awkward "relationship" of sorts. She is surly and non-communicative, yet demanding. Why Bronson keeps her around is anyone's guess - it never makes sense. (And it's not the sex: He clearly doesn't want it and neither does she.) They get into a bad crash which lands Bronson in the hospital with major burns. When he is finally released, he sees that she has rebuilt his bike to showroom condition. Bronson is overcome with joy and gratitude. We join them at their tearful, emotional good-bye...
Odd ending, no? You keep expecting one of them to SAY SOMETHING. Like, "Hey, thanks for the ride, bub, but I'm going back to my rich life now," or, "Hey, thanks for rebuilding the bike, babe." You know, the stuff NORMAL people would say. But noooooo....
All of the episodes and the pilot movie are available on DVD (which I bought, naturally). It's interesting to watch them now where you can pause and go back (or skip through the boring parts). It's great seeing the shows again.
"Then Came Bronson" made a big impression on me. It sparked my passion for motorcycles (which burns still), and planted the seeds for cross-country camping trips. I swore that one day I would have a red Harley-Davidson Sportster and one day I would quit my job and chuck it all and roam around the country, free as a bird, meeting people and solving (or not solving) their problems.
Teenagers do like to dream.