Nick Adams, who died under unusual circumstances in 1968, starred in this Western that aired for an astounding 76 episodes between 1959 and 1961. He played the one and only character in the series, the wandering Johnny Yuma, who moved from town to town, episode after episode, meeting interesting people and helping out folks in need. Johnny Cash sang the theme song, “The Ballad of Johnny Yuma.”
Actor Nick Adams, who spent the mid-to-late 1950s working consistently in movies and on television in primarily small roles, rose to prominence in 1959 due to his role in ABC’s half-hour Western The Rebel. He created the series with Andy Fenady and Irv Kershner (the closing credits list just Adams and Fenady as creators) . Initially, Adams decided not to take on the title role, having too much on his plate in early February 1959 .
In May, however, The New York Times reported that Adams would be starring in The Rebel (apparently, many of the other roles he was up for never materialized) which was given the Sunday 9-9:30PM time slot on ABC. The series would be produced by Goodson-Todman Productions and sponsored by Procter & Gamble and L & M Cigarettes . Adams would be the star of the series and its only cast member.
“It is frankly designed to appeal to a young audience–to be a show that teenagers will dig,” explained Cecil Smith, writing in The Los Angeles Times in July 1959 . He continued:
This is even contained in the title–The Rebel. Although the characters Adams plays, Johnny Yuma, fought for the South, the designation “reb” goes deeper than this. He is a symbol of rebellious youth–a loner, seeking something to hang his life on, wandering through the clapboard towns of the West of a century ago. Incidentally, he fought his war with no interest in the causes, no southern bone to pick. 
While promoting the series in 1959 ABC referred to Johnny Yuma as “a Reconstruction beatnik,” setting the tone for the series . Following the end of the Civil War, spent a year roaming the former Confederacy before eventually returning to his hometown. He found it overrun by ruffians, his father killed, and most of the town’s residents ready to pack up and leave — if they hadn’t already. After cleaning up the town and visiting his father’s grave, Yuma left.
With nothing to tie him down anymore Yuma became a loner, roaming from town to town helping out folks in need. He kept track of his exploits in his journals, carried with him alongside his guns and saddle wherever he went. As the only cast member in the series, Adams was front and center in every episode. There weren’t even any recurring characters. Adams brought an intensity to the role of Johnny Yuma that fell somewhere between brooding and simmering. There was little emotion other than bursts of anger when confronted with injustice, anger that often led to violence.
In each episode, Yuma came upon a town or a group of people in need of saving — typically from a band of thieves or other criminals — and would do what he could to make things right. Not surprisingly, many episodes dealt in some way with the aftermath of the Civil War. Yuma faced down intolerance, distrust, greed, confusion and revenge. Despite his rebellious nature, Yuma respected law and order and despised abuse of power. He stood up for the weak and downtrodden. He traveled alone and was often forced to work alone because he was the only one willing to stand up to the bad guys.
The Rebel premiered on Sunday, October 4th, 1959 at 9PM, sandwiched between a returning series, half-hour The Lawman, at 8:30PM and another new series, the hour-long The Alaskans, from 9:30PM to 10:30PM. Two other returning shows, Colt .45 and Maverick, kicked off ABC’s Sunday schedule at 7PM, which was made up of a three-and-a-half hour block of Western action-adventure capped off by Dick Clark’s World of Talent at 10:30PM. Opposite The Rebel was G.E. Theater on CBS and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show on NBC.
Although he admitted to having a personal connection to The Rebel, Cecil Smith was high on the series even before it began. Smith and Adams were quite friendly; Adams shared his idea for The Rebel with Smith in 1958 and it was in Smith’s living room that Adams decided not to star in the series in February 1959 . Writing in July, Smith proclaimed “I’ll climb far out onto a limb and predict [The Rebel] will be a major hit” .
In October, after the series had premiered, Smith lavished it with accolades:
“It may be my basic unmathematical romantic nature, but I can find parallels for Johnny Yuma’s search for meaning in the slum kid heading out into the streets of the city, aimlessly walking, seeking, or in young David with his slingshot walking toward Goliath.
“Speaking practically, the format of the series, which Nick Adams created with writer Andy Fenady and director Irvin Kershner, is ideal — limitless in scope. But as an impracticable person, it is the romantic idea of the young man on the move — Candide or Johnny Yuma — that appeals to me. I wish I were young enough to join him.” 
Seymour Korman, in The Chicago Daily Tribune, was less effusive but still mostly positive: “As each western is projected for the home screen its star insists it will be different from the others. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is of a trite pattern. The Rebel definitely is different as it deals not with a town or a symbol, but with a young man battling a world he does not understand, seeing a love, a family, a life, and writing–always writing–in his journal” .
The New York Times lumped The Rebel together with The Lawman and The Alaskans. John P. Shanley wasn’t kind, calling The Lawman “the best of a poor trio last night” and ending his review by writing that “the total effect of the three programs was almost as numbing and unpleasant as a hangover” .
A total of 36 episodes were produced during The Rebel‘s first season. Plots ranged from Yuma being arrested and sentenced to a forced labor to inadvertently helping to steal land to trying to help a Chinese family about to be swindled. In one episode he even teams up with the man whose trying to kill him. There were also episodes in which Yuma served as bodyguard, school teacher and bounty hunter. And, of course, a number of episodes involving Indians.
Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma
Post-Civil War plots during the first season included: discovering an old friend from the Army has become addicted to drugs; flashbacks to a wartime romance; venturing into Mexico in search of a sword he promised to return to a general’s widow; visiting a former commanding officer who may be about to execute an innocent man; encountering a number of former soldiers who don’t accept that the Civil War has ended; returning a medal to the family of a fallen comrade.
Guest stars during the first season included Jeanette Nolan, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Blake, Johnny Cash, Robert Vaughn and Dan Blocker. The final episode of the season was broadcast on June 12th, 1960.
For its second season the series retained its 9-9:30PM time slot and produced another 40 episodes. Production on The Rebel either shifted to the Fed-Mer-Ada Company or was shared by both the Fen-Mer-Ada Company and Goodson-Todman Productions . Season Two premiered on September 18th, 1960.
Actress Carol Nugent, who was married to Nick Adams at the time, appeared in a handful of episodes during the second season in small roles as did their infant daughter, Allyson Lee (she was paid scale) .
Episodes during the second season included Yuma being forced by an Indian chief to decide which two hostages should be killed; being framed for murder; catching a bandit in the act; rescuing a man whothen pledges to repay his debt; joining a posse chasing down an escaped prisoner who is actually innocent; agreeing to help toughen up a rancher’s son; being offered the hand in mariage of the daughter of a man he rescued; trying to help his cousin who wants to be a gunslinger; meeting an actress and being offered a role in a play; heading back to his home town in search of a bounty hunter.
There were more Civil War plots, including a visit from General Grant which gives Johnny the chance to recount Lee’s surrender to a young boy; an old friend from the Army trying to make it as a boxer; facing the man who tortured him when he was a Union prisoner of war; getting into a gunfight after an argument over the Civil War; helping escort Jefferson Davis back to Richmond while trying to foil an assassination attempt.
Guest stars during the second season included Tex Ritter, Soupy Sales, Gigi Perreau, Leonard Nimoy, Claude Atkins, Jamie Farr, Leif Erickson, John Carradine and John Dehner (who played the same part in two episodes). The last first-run episode of The Rebel was aired on June 18th, 1961. Repeats were shown through September.
After two seasons and 76 episodes The Rebel came to an end. Exactly why it was canceled is unknown. In mid-April 1961 The Los Angeles Times reported the cancellation, stating that “shows of the nature of The Rebel, which had high ratings and was, generally, a well-made, intelligent program, are not dying because of the decline of the west — they’re moving aside for the general trend in television — particularly on ABC — toward hour shows” .
A month later, however, Val Adams of The New York Times revealed that ABC had initially planned to broadcast an hour-long version of The Rebel — called The Rebel and the Yank — from 7:30-8:30PM on Wednesdays during the 1961-1962 season (replacing Hong Kong). But the opportunity arose to showcase Steve Allen in a variety show .
According to The Los Angeles Times, The Rebel and the Yank would have been, as the title suggests, “a graft of the current Rebel half-hour with Nick Adams onto a show called the Yank” . The paper noted that as counter-programming to NBC’s Wagon Train, The Rebel and the Yank wouldn’t have been any better than Hong Kong; a variety series with Steve Allen, though, might be able to pull viewers away from NBC .
Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma
Confusion over the fate of The Rebel at the end of May led Hedda Hopper, in her “Looking At Hollywood” column, to report that the series had been canceled (and also that Colonel Tom Parker had helped Nick Adams get the series due to his friendship with Elvis Presley) while Larry Wolters in his “TV Ticker” column reported that The Rebel might expand to an hour during the next season [18, 19].
The true reason behind The Rebel‘s cancellation may have been revealed by The New York Times in June 1961. In an article discussing the Senate testimony regarding television and crime, Tom Wicker reported that The Rebel was one of the most popular shows among youngsters at the Federal Youth Center in Ashland, Kentucky and National Training School in Washington, D.C. (according to the director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, James V. Bennett) .
Furthermore, according to Thomas W. Moore, ABC’s vice president in charge of programming and talent, the network would be cutting its number of action/adventure programs; The Rebel was being canceled even though “it captures about 35 per cent of the Sunday evening audience in its time slot and has sponsors clamoring to back it” .
Thus, it seems that although ABC considered renewing The Rebel for the 1961-1962 season by expanding it to an hour, the opportunity to bring Steve Allen to the network and concerns over violent action/adventure series ultimately led to the cancellation of the series despite its popularity in the Nielsen ratings. From June to September 1962 NBC aired episodes of the series as a summer filler show.
Johnny Cash sang the show’s famous theme song, “The Ballad of Johnny Yuma,” which was written by series co-creator Andrew Fenady and Richard Markowitz, who also composed and conducted the rest of the show’s music. According to the closing credits the song was titled simply “The Rebel.” During the opening credits only a few bars of the song are heard; the closing credits include several verses.
Here are the full lyrics:
Johnny Yuma was a rebel,
He roamed through the West.
Did Johnny Yuma, the Rebel
He wandered alone. He got fightin’ mad,
This rebel lad.
He packed no star
As he wandered far
Where the only law
Was a hook and a draw;
The rebel, Johnny Yuma. Johnny Yuma was a rebel,
He roamed through the West.
Did Johnny Yuma, the Rebel
He wandered alone. He searched the land,
This restless lad.
He was panther quick
And leather tough,
And he figured that
He’d been pushed enough.
The rebel, Johnny Yuma.
A slightly longer version was released as a single by Johnny Cash.
Following the cancellation of The Rebel, Nick Adams starred in Saints and Sinners on NBC from 1962 to 1963 (it was canceled after less than twenty episodes). In 1963 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Twilight of Honor but lost. Shortly thereafter, his career took a nosedive. Nick Adams was found dead in his home in Los Angeles on February 7th, 1968. He was thirty-six years old.
A coroner’s report determined that he either intentionally or accidentally overdosed on medication for treatment of nervous disorders and alcoholism . The inquiry over his death was closed on March 2nd, certified as “accidental-suicidal and undetermined” . Some 2,000 mourners were at his funeral in Berwick, Pennsylvania where he was given a military funeral (Adams had served in the Coast Guard) .Due to his role in Rebel Without A Cause, Adams is sometimes listed alongside James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as victims of a “curse” relating to the film. Those three died relatively young and under unusual circumstances: Dean was killed in a car crash, Wood in a drowning accident, and Mineo was stabbed to death .
2 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: Alas–Fair Caesar (Sid) Has Fallen.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Feb. 1959: A12.
3 Adams, Val. “Heflin Will Star on ‘Playhouse 90’.” New York Times. 8 May 1959: 55.
4 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: The Rebel Coming With Hit Material.”
6 Shepard, Richard F.” “Rizzuto — Once a ‘Scooter,’ Now a Rooter.” New York Times. 2 Aug. 1959: X11.
7. After discussing how Adams was involved in creating The Rebel and stating that it was “designed for Nick to play the central role,” Smith explained that Adams “sees too many projects in the wind to tie himself up to a series at this moment.” The article ended with the following: “Nick sat in my house the other night talking the problem out–trying to find a decision. He made it himself–against the series.” (“The TV Scene: Alas–Fair Caeser (Sid) Has Fallen,” The Los Angeles Times, Page A12). And in his July 16th, 1959 article about The Rebel, Smith wrote that “I have a double interest in this show because more than a year ago Adams wandered up to the house with the germ of an idea for a TV western with a kid for the hero.” (“The Rebel Coming with Hit Material,” The Los Angeles Times, Page A12).
8 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: The Rebel Coming With Hit Material.”
9 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: Rebel Is Unique Western Fare With Timeless Quality.” Los Angeles Times. 11 Oct. 1959: G5.
10 Korman, Seymour. “Young Man of the West.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 31 Oct. 1959: C5.
11 Shanley, John P. “3 Filmed Adventure Series on Channel 7.” New York Times. 5 Oct. 1959: 63.
12 Korman, Seymour. “Nick Adams Puts His Family to Work.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 17 Sep. 1960: C3.
13 Schumach, Murray. “Writers Return to Film Studios.” New York Times. 14 Jun. 1960: 43.
14 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: Don’t Give Them a Home on Range.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Apr. 1961: A10.
15 Adams, Val. “Steve Allen Near Deal on TV Series.” New York Times. 16 May 1961: 75.
16 Smith, Cecil. “The TV Scene: Plan Revived to Bring Allen Back.” Los Angeles Times. 17 May 1961: A8.
18 Hopper, Hedda. “Looking at Hollywood: Fonda Gets Role Slated for Gary Cooper.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 25 May 1961: A26.
19 Wolters, Larry. “TV Ticker.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 27 May 1961: B4.
20 Wicker, Tom. “U.S. Prison Head Assails TV Crime.” New York Times. 10 Jun. 1961: 17.
22 Cohen, Jerry. “Actor Nick Adams’ Death Blamed on Overdose of Drug.” Los Angeles Times. 9 Feb. 1968; A1.
23 “Inquiry Closed on Nick Adams.” Los Angeles Times. 5 Mar. 1968: A1.
24 “Nick Adams Buried as 2,000 Attend Funeral.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Feb. 1968: A8.
25 Vernon, Scott. “Scott’s World: Wood Tragedy Raises Superstition.” United Press International. 3 Dec. 1981: AM Cyle.
Originally Published October 14th, 2003
Last Updated May 5th, 2015