Sierra


This hour-long adventure series ran for just 11 episodes on NBC during the 1974-1975 season. Produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VIII Limited, it was cancelled after just four episodes had aired.

Going into the 1973-1974 season, Jack Webb’s television universe was in great shape. His production company, Mark VII Limited, would have four shows on the air, all on NBC and all produced in association with Universal : Adam-12 (entering its sixth season), Emergency! (entering its third season), Hec Ramsey (entering its second season as part of The NBC Mystery Movie) and Chase (a new series).

Fast forward to the spring of 1974, when the networks were busy developing their schedules for the 1974-1975 season. Mark VII Limited’s television output was halved, with both Hec Ramsey and Chase cancelled. But it had five pilots in contention for the 1974-1975 season, four for NBC (Fraud, The Black Pearl, Vector and Park Ranger) and one for ABC (Mobile Two) [1].

Only one of the pilots — Park Ranger — would be picked up for the 1974-1975 season and it would go through several name changes and switch from a half-hour series to an hour-long series before it hit the air. Broadcasting listed it as a half-hour adventure series about the United States Forest Service in March 1974 [2]. In April, The New York Times referred to it as The Rangers, an hour-long series that would “deal with the preservation of the environment” [3].

The name of the series was changed once more to Sierra, reflecting its setting at the fictional Sierra National Park (it would actually be filmed at Yosemite National Park). The characters would be park rangers with the United States National Park Service rather than the Forest Service. There were also some changes made to the cast after the pilot was filmed. The series would star James G. Richardson and Ernest Thompson as Ranger Tim Cassidy and Ranger Matt Harper, respectively. The two worked for Chief Ranger Jack Moore, played by Jack Hogan. Rounding out the cast were Susan Foster and Michael Warren as Ranger Julie Beck and Ranger P.J. Lewis.

Ernest Thompson and James G. Richardson as Ranger Tim Cassidy and Ranger Matt Harper
Copyright © TV Guide, 1974 [1]

According to Richardson, the series would downplay the role of park rangers in policing national parks, because “the Park Service is very sensitive about its law enforcement job” [4]. Shortly before the series premiered, Broadcasting reported that the Sierra Club had accused MCA, Inc. (the parent company of Universal Television) of “seeking to develop Yosemite at the expense of its natural preservation.” Among the charges were painting rocks and using the Park Service’s rescue helicopter during production of Sierra [5].

Yosemite Superintendent Leslie Arnberger explained that “some rocks had been coated with a water-based paint to make them stand out better on film but there was a guarantee it would be removed. He also said that the use of the helicopter was with the strict understanding that it would be released immediately in an emergency.” More broadly, the Sierra Club claimed that MCA was trying to alter the way hotel and concession facilities were operated; a subsidiary of MCA was in charge of concessions at Yosemite [6].

NBC gave Sierra the Thursday 8-9PM time slot, where it would compete with returning Top Ten hit The Waltons on CBS and a pair of sitcoms on ABC, returning The Odd Couple and new series Paper Moon. The series premiered on September 12th with an episode in which Rangers Cassidy and Harper staged a daring rescue of a couple stranded while mountain climbing, dealt with a number of squabbling tourists, and handled a bear named Cruncher.

Critics, while mostly appreciative of the majestic setting, were not otherwise impressed. In his review, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times compared the series to The Mod Squad or The Rookies, only set outside. Sierra, he wrote, “combines spectacular scenery with some of the dumbest storylines to clutter prime-time TV” [7].

“The scenery is breathtaking,” wrote Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press, “but the generally laggard script may cause you to exhale and change channels before the rescue commences. The show could be a passable 30 minutes, but it seems too long at an hour” [8]. The Chicago Tribune‘s Gary Deeb was even more critical: “Jack Webb, whose brain has been stuck in neutral for the past 25 years, brings us another in his unending series of cartoon shows without the animation” [9].

One positive review came from Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times, who like other critics noted the fact that Sierra was similar to Jack Webb’s earlier shows, only to argue “it seems to me to work better here. Maybe it’s the scenery, which is glorious–the show is shot entirely in Yosemite” [10].

The negative reviews translated into disastrous ratings. The premiere ranked 50th for the week out of 56 programs [11]. In its September 30th issue, published shortly after the third episode of of the series aired, Broadcasting reported that on the basis of the ratings for its first two episodes, Sierra was already in danger of being cancelled [12]. Just over a week later, on October 8th, NBC officially pulled the plug, making Sierra the first casualty of the 1974-1975 season [13].

Episodes of the series often saw the rangers heading into the park to rescue someone. In one episode, they had to rescue a pair of swimmers caught in rapids and a blind child lost in the woods. In another, the rangers tracked a bear, rescued a diver trapped underwater and helped a camper stuck in his sleeping bag. Other episodes involved the rangers fighting a fire high atop a redwood tree; leading campers out of a dangerous forest fire; babysitting the young son of a fellow ranger; saving two teenagers pushed into attempting a record-breaking climb; and searching for Chief Ranger Moore who goes missing while fishing.

The October 10th episode was pre-empted for a documentary on a deadly tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio in April 1973. The following week the series was pre-empted again for baseball. The episode that was supposed to air on October 10th finally aired on October 24th. It was a crossover with Emergency! in which paramedics John Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (played by Kevin Tighe) traveled to Sierra to learn about mountain rescue techniques.

NBC would keep Sierra on its schedule through mid-December, allowing all 11 episodes to air. The final episode was broadcast on December 12th. It was replaced the following week by The Mac Davis Show. A few weeks later, on Sunday, December 24th from 8:30-10PM NBC broadcast The Rangers, the pilot to Sierra. In it, Colby Chester played Ranger Matt Harper and Laurette Spang played Ranger Julie Beck. The Rangers was repeated on Monday, July 14th, 1975.

The theme song to the series was titled “Sierra” and was performed by Denny Brooks with lyrics by John Denver and music by Lee Holdrige. Included in the closing credits was an acknowledgement of the assistance of Secretary of the Interior Rogers C.B. Morton, director of the National Park Service Ronald H. Walker and “the dedicated men and women of the National Park Service.”

Works Cited:

1 “Scorecard on program development for the 1974-75 season.” Broadcasting. 4 Mar. 1974: 22-23.
2 Ibid.
3 Brown, Les. “TV Programing for Fall Cuts Down on Violence.” New York Times. 20 Apr. 1974: 1.
4 Shull, Richard. “There’s a New Webb Show.” Lakeland Ledger [Lakeland, FL]. TV Insert. 25 Aug. 1974: 14.
5 “Sierra Club at odds with MCA.” Broadcasting. 9 Sep. 1974: 54.
6 Ibid.
7 O’Connor, John J. “TV: ‘Sierra,’ ‘Paper Moon,’ ‘Harry O,’ ‘Movin’ On’.” New York Times. 12 Sep. 1974: 77.
8 Sharbutt, Jay. “Premiere orgy continues.” Geneva Times [Geneva, NY]. Associated Press. 12 Sep. 1974: 14.
9 “Critical comment, cont.” Broadcasting. 23 Sep. 1974: 20.
10 Ibid.
11 “Premiere Week Ratings Show ‘Rhoda’ on Top, ‘New Land’ Last.” Observer-Dispatch [Utica, NY]. Associated Press. 19 Sep. 1974: 27.
12 “Trouble enough to go around as networks assess results of first two rating weeks.” Broadcasting. 30 Sep. 1974: 18.
13 “NBC-TV To Cancel New Thursday Show.” Hartford Courant. Associated Press. 10 Oct. 1974: 28.

Image Credits:

1 From TV Guide, September 7th, 1974, Page 54.

Originally Published April 12th, 2014
Last Updated April 12th, 2014



10 Comments

  • David says:

    This is very interesting. I never watched this show, and remember very little about it from the time. I did watch “Emergency!” every week back then, and also watched afternoon reruns of the 1960s edition of “Dragnet.” I rarely watched “Adam-12,” but liked it when I saw some reruns on Me-TV. I do remember watching “Paper Moon” in 1974, which aired on ABC opposite “Sierra.” That show did not last very long, either. Apparently a lot of shows that season were in ratings trouble very early, based on the title of the article from “Broadcasting” that you referenced: “Trouble enough to go around as networks assess results of first two rating weeks.”

  • Karen Martin says:

    I watched this show when I was in high school, and enjoyed it because I’d never gone to a national park, so Sierra showed me a world completely different than my lower-middle class life, where “going on vacation” meant visiting relatives 100 miles away.

    (I’ve never understood TVs early 1970s “rural purge”, when demografics showed young city-dwellers didn’t watch westerns or other shows with rural settings. When I was young I wanted TV to show me something I wasn’t seeing in the “real world”.)

    After half-a-century of TV I realize what I loved best about favorite shows were the characters portrayed. I’d tune in each week to see how the characters interacted with each other.

    I recall enjoying Sierra and it’s theme song, but I don’t recall what the characters were like, or the plot of any episode. So I must admit that Sierra — like the vast majority of TV shows — wasn’t all that compelling.

  • Roger Breedlove says:

    Is there anyone who has any idea on how to get a copy of the pilot for this series. That story line included the rescue of rock climbers, played by me and Dave Bircheff. Wayne Merry, who was a climber with Warren Harding on the first ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in 1958, also had a part and was a consultant on to the producers. If anyone has any ideas, please send me a message through my LinkedIn account. https://www.linkedin.com/in/rogerbreedlove

    I am listed as Carl Roger Breedlove and Dave is listed as Dave Brikoff. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072065/

    Thanks,

    Roger Breedlove

  • Edwin Self says:

    I Produced the pilot. I, too, wish I had a copy. When Jack Webb asked me if I wanted to Produce the series, I said no, telling him that everything there was to do in the series had already been done in the pilot.

    During the spring of 1973 I was the King of Yosemity, and it is still a thrill 40 years later. I have never returned, because I didn’t want to be just another tourist.

    I have never wanted to be a director, but I did coach the two climbers who portrayed the guys needing rescuing.

    MCA owned the concessions in those days, so
    Director Chris Nyby and I shared the largest suite in the Awahanee.

  • Kirk says:

    Mr. Self,
    Apparently, Universal/NBC don’t think the market is there or they would have released this show on DVD by now, but maybe if this and Chase, Project U.F.O., and a few of the other shorter-lived series in Jack Webb’s television universe were packaged together as a set (the Webbiverse Collector’s Set?) they might reconsider? I’d jump at the chance to buy a package like that.
    Do you have any contacts at Universal or NBC that you could suggest this to? That would be the only way I could think of to get a copy of the pilot.

  • Mary says:

    Mr. Breedlove and Mr Self,
    I may still have my vcr recording of The Rangers. If the tape is intact, I may be able to take it to a store to have it converted to DVD,. I don’t know how much it costs, though. I loved Sierra! I will help you if I can.
    Mr.Self, I agree with Kirk about contacts at Universal that might help get the series released.

  • Leilani Napp says:

    I loved Sierra, though for some reason I thought the title was Sierra High, and I was disappointed when it was preempted and then cancelled. But in my memory I thought I’d watched more than just 11 episodes.
    We have gotten rid of our TV service because it has gotten so expensive for the few channels we would watch which consisted of the old shows. So we are looking for some of the old shows we use to enjoy and are buying the DVDs. I thought of this show and tried finding it. That is when I came across this account of it. I’m sad that there are so few episodes and they aren’t on DVD.

  • Patrick L. Gooden says:

    I recall this show very well. I once had taped it when it played on T.V. I enjoyed Chester Colby and his side kick. I thought the plot was good and as you have said, it was filmed in Yosemite. I recall the rescue of the two climbers and a romantic scene where a beautiful lady was following Matt Harper around the park to see more of him. Also the scene where two inexperience campers were trying to erect tent. That followed my a man who refused to leash his dog when confronted by one of the rangers. After explaining the law about assaulting a Federal office, he knowledge his mistake and took out his leash and put it on his dog. The sceme where Cruncher the bear was found tearing a young couples car for food, was great, as it made it clear why we don’t feed bears in the park.

    There was the scene in the movie where two rock jocks had to be saved, and it portrayed one of the hazard jobs the Park service has to handle and did a fine job of it as well.
    There was another part where two older men trying to show they were still rugged individuals , go out snow shoeing and have to be saved. I though that part was very well done. Remember your limits when you become old.
    Something I am realizing all to well at my advanced years. Finally after all the best laid plans of men, Two male rangers, it is Julie who saves the day when she is able to trap Cruncher the bear feeing out of a dumpster in the back building. As I recall she had very beautiful smile too!
    Sad to say my copy was lost to a dumpster up in Valdez, Alaska.

    If you can locate this movie I am one who would love to purchase one copy myself. Chester Coby did a fine performance.

  • darryl skivers says:

    have universal get the rights to all the mark.7 productions

    and make dvd collextions, and have then remastered for film quaility

    and sound quaility

    Darryl

  • darryl skivers says:

    and where do you find o hara us treasuy

    the pilot and the rest of the shows

    please advise

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