Now seen as a minor blip on the superstar career of singer/songwriter/rodeo-rider Gene Autry, The Adventures of Champion is the most impressive kids’ show you’ve never heard about. Starring a child actor who turned his back on the industry at the age of 17, a German Shepard that was regarded as the best animal actor in the business, and a world-traveling horse who could hula-hoop, the short-lived western TV show boasted more talent than any other kid’s show on the air.
Find out more about how this show kickstarted the careers of Hollywood’s most prestigious actors, including how it replaced one of its lead actors mid-season without any viewers spotting the difference!
An Adaptation of a Radio Spin-Off
In perhaps the most roundabout way a television show has ever come to fruition, Adventures of Champion was a TV adaptation of a popular CBS radio show of the same name. That show was canceled in 1950, five years before it found its way to television. But it doesn’t end there: the radio show was a spin-off of an even more popular CBS radio show called Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, which ran from 1940 to 1956.
So we have a popular radio show that spawned another popular radio show that got canceled, then rebooted on TV half a decade later. This seemed to be a show that couldn’t die, so what did it in?
Theme Song Controversy (And Why It Wasn’t Solved)
Adventures of Champion’s opening theme song really set the tone of the show from its first lyrics. About the greatness of Champion’s abilities, as he faces the dangers of the wild west, the song was not made without its own controversy. After recording the song, Mike Stewart was not credited as the singer or songwriter while the show was airing. When he finally received credit for the song decades later, the show was already off the air.
While Stewart’s opening theme song is undoubtedly catchy, it is surprisingly not the most famous song associated with this show. While it was undoubtedly frustrating for Stewart to be skimped of his credit, he’d be a fool to take his grievances up with a cast of trained killers.
A Kid-Centric Western
As creators of over six different western TV and radio shows at the time, the writers and producers of this show definitely wanted to do something different with it. Instead of focusing on cowboys, outlaws, and Indians fighting to the death like they did in Buffalo Bill, Jr., The Range Rider, and Death Valley Days, Adventures of Champion centered itself on the close relationship between a kid (Ricky North), his horse (Champion), and his dog (Rebel).
The show’s innocent moral core, in retrospect, is a bit ironic, considering it gave one of Hollywood’s most dangerous and dastardly villains one of his first acting gigs.
Gene Autry: The Driving Force of the Show
The driving force behind the show, Autry was already a huge celebrity in his own right well before adapting Adventures of Champion to the small screen. Already a star of over 44 films before 1940, Autry was one of the hottest acts going in the 1950s. In 1940, theater exhibitors voted him the fourth biggest star in all of cinema, right behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracey.
On top of all that, he was the star of the radio show Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, where he wrote and co-wrote over 300 songs – including one Christmas classic you’ve heard thousands of times.
Barry Curtis: The Only Boy Who Could Tame Champion
An integral component of the show, Barry Curtis played Ricky North, the only boy in the west capable of riding the ferociously wild horse Champion. Curtis’s acting career came out of the gates running as he starred in several primetime network television shows, most notably Leave It To Beaver and Lassie. This led to him getting cast as the lead in Adventures of Champion. What’s more impressive is that he managed to become such a rising prospect before he turned 17.
If he stuck with it, Curtis had an excellent shot of turning his rising celebrity into a household name. Read on to find out why he turned his back on Hollywood before his 18th birthday.
Champion the Wonder Horse
Like Gene Autry, Champion was a widely popular celebrity before starring in Adventures of Champion. The Wonder Horse made his big-screen debut alongside Autry in the 1935 musical western Melody Trail, a film about a singing cowboy who must rescue a baby from its kidnappers. Champion’s star grew further, as he ended up starring alongside his owner in a whopping 51 more films.
Champion was a frequent co-star of Autry’s because he was trained by Autry after being seen in his brief stint in a TV series called The Phantom Empire. From there, Autry bought Champion for 75 dollars. By 1939, after becoming favorite Hollywood’s leading horse, Champion was priced at 25,000 dollars.
J.R. the Dog
J.R. was a crucial part of the show’s appeal to children, as he was widely considered by many in the industry as “the best-trained dog in the business.” Often assisting Champion and Ricky North in chasing bad guys and serving justice, J.R. (who played Rebel) would use his tricks and canine instinct to take down and subdue any bandits or ruffians who decided to stir up some trouble.
Like his castmates, J.R. (who, for an unknown reason, is listed as Blaze in the show’s credits) also had an impressive resume before starring in Adventures of Champion. His biggest claim to fame is his role in the television show Rin Tin Tin.
Jim Bannon Played Ricky North’s Uncle
Playing Ricky North’s uncle, Jim Bannon was a staple of Gene Autry’s production company, Flying A Productions. In addition to playing a lead role in Adventures of Champion, Bannon was a regular on Annie Oakley and was even pitched to act in a televised version of Red Ryder as the lead role. However, that project never came to the light of day.
Bannon’s biggest claim to A-list fame comes from a very unusual place: a step-nephew. After marrying comedian Bea Benaderet, Bannon had two kids: Jack and Maggie Bannon. Jack Bannon eventually married Ellen Travolta, sister of the one and only John Travolta.
Lee Van Cleef Only Appeared in One Episode
While only appearing in one of the show’s 26 episodes, Lee Van Cleef none the less made quite the impact on westerns as we know them. Cleef played Frank in Adventures of Champion, a typical villain who is eventually thwarted by Ricky, Champion, and Rebel. However, while his brief appearance on the show was not too memorable, his multiple reprisals of the “villain” role would eventually make him into one of Hollywood’s most memorable bad guys.
Van Cleef would go on to appear as the antagonist in films like High Noon, For A Few Dollars More, and, of course, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.
The Cowboy Code
As a famous role model on an equally famous radio show, Gene Autry often had young listeners trying to emulate him and his actions when listening to Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. In response, Autry decided to create an ethical and moral code for his content so that all of his heroes would not have a negative impact on the youth.
The Cowboy Code is as follows:
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.3. He must always tell the truth.4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.6. He must help people in distress.7. He must be a good worker.8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.10. The Cowboy is a patriot.
That Cast Included Many Military Men
On top of being involved in multiple noteworthy projects, the cast of Adventures of Champion were also extremely decorated military veterans. Gene Autry enlisted in the United States Air Force as a tech sergeant and military pilot in order to fight in World War II. Lee Van Cleef enlisted in the United States Marines as a submarine minesweeper at only the age of 17.
Even Champion has a somewhat military background, as he often played the war horse of Autry when he was in movies about the American Civil War. Yet, surprisingly, Champion would become a casualty of the second world war… despite never actually being in combat.
Radio, Television, and Comics
We’ve already covered Adventures of Champion’s strange road to television, but did you know it was a comic as well? Published once a year from 1953 to 1960, the Adventures of Champion comics followed stories similar to those depicted on the radio and television shows with a similar cast of characters. Additionally, Gene Autry had two other comic annuals published alongside this one, including a Gene Autry’s Champion comic and a Champion the Wonder Horse comic.
The Champion the Wonder Horse comic actually became so popular that it crossed the pond and was released as a strip in the UK comic Buster.
North to West
While following a similar cast of characters who dealt with similar conflicts in the west, the three iterations of Adventures of Champion differed from each other in very small, odd ways. For instance, where Barry Curtis’s character was called Ricky North in the television show, the character was actually called Ricky West in both the radio serial and the comic strip.
It is unlikely that this change was made for legal or copyright reasons, as CBS owned and distributed both the television show and radio serial, with the comic being distributed by companies partnered with CBS. The most likely reason for this is that the television producers thought the last name “North” was a better name than “West.”
Another change Adventures of Champion underwent between its radio, television, and comic iterations was their varying release and production schedules. Where the television show only ran for one season with each of its 26 episodes being released on a weekly basis, the radio serial ran on a Monday to Friday schedule. Each story was split into five 15-minute parts, which were played once a day.
The idea behind this release pattern was to end each episode on a cliffhanger so that listeners would tune into every episode that week to learn how the story resolved. As for the comic, each issue was released annually. Surprisingly, despite being used to promote the television show, the comic strip outlived the show by four years.
The Lost Episodes
Nearly 50 years after the cancellation of the show, it was finally released on DVD by UK-based distribution company Pickwick Group Limited. The set was entitled The Adventures of Champion the Wonder Horse and had the entire series on six separate DVDs.
Well, almost. Out of the 26 episodes aired on CBS, only 23 were able to find their way to DVD. The missing three episodes, “Mystery Mountain,” “The Golden Hoax,” and “Real Unfriendly Ghost,” are unfortunately lost forever because no one thought to preserve them after their release. But why did this show, packed with all of the talent and star power in the world, fall to the wayside so quickly?
Too Many Horses
At the time of the show’s release in 1955, the landscape of television was experiencing a very odd trend: horses. In addition to having Adventures of Champion feature a horse as one of its central characters, two other shows followed suit by doing the exact same thing: Fury, a show about a wild horse living with a rancher, and My Friend Flicka, a show about a boy who’s solely devoted to his horse.
Not only were these shows starring the same type of animal, but they were essentially the same stories as well. However, where My Friend Flicka and Adventures of Champion only lasted for one season, Fury managed to stay on NBC primetime television for five years.
From Child Star to Hawaiian Philosopher
By age 16, Barry Curtis had been the star of several high-profile television shows. By age 17, he threw it all away.
This seems to be the set-up for the tragic fate most child actors experience after the limelight, but Curtis is one of the few exceptions to the rule. After giving up on acting, he set his sights to academia and graduated from UCLA at the top of his class with a degree in philosophy. He then earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard and became an esteemed philosophy teacher at the University of Hawaii. After decades of teaching, Curtis happily retired in 2011 at the age of 68.
Gene Autry’s Walk of Fame
Even though Adventures of Champion went off the air in 1956, Autry kept up an insane work ethic by keeping up with his several television shows and movies. He also toured the country with the unique act of featuring singing and rodeo riding in the same show. He’s on record as the first entertainer to ever sell out Madison Square Garden and is the only celebrity to have five separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After retiring from show business in 1970, Autry became the first franchise owner of the Los Angeles Angels, a baseball team that would later be known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The number 26 was retired by the team in memory of Autry after he passed in 1988 of lymphoma.
Autry’s Red-Nosed Reindeer
While he did not write the song (that honor belongs to Johnny Marks), Gene Autry recorded a version of it that topped the charts in 1950 at number 1 on the United State’s Billboard 100. That song holds two distinctions: one for being the first song to top the charts in 1950, the other for being the first song to ever fall from number 1 to completely off the charts.
Many artists have recorded their own renditions of the song, but Autry’s remains the definitive version that is often played non-stop on radio stations every holiday season.
The Four Champions
Perhaps Adventures of Champion‘s biggest secret is that the horse who played Champion was not actually the real-life Champion! In fact, the original Champion never even made an appearance on the show. After Gene Autry went overseas to fight in World War II, Champion died due to a heart attack. His celebrity, however, lived on, which prompted Autry to purchase and train not one, but THREE more Champions.
That’s right: the show entitled Adventures of Champion starred in three separate horses, all of whom were not actually Champion. The show’s credits hide this fact, accrediting Champion as himself as an attempt to preserve the horse’s name value.
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