The Americans (1961)
NBC’s The Americans starred Darryl Hickman and Dick Davalos as brothers fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War. The two alternated as lead each week, occasionally appearing together. First announced in 1959, the show didn’t debut until January 1961 as a mid-season replacement. NBC cancelled it after just 17 episodes.
Commemorating The Civil War
In the late 1950s, with the centennial of the American Civil War rapidly approaching, the TV networks faced a pair of dilemmas. First of all, could they commemorate the anniversary without offending viewers? Furthermore, could they attract sponsors equally wary of offending consumers? All three networks announced a variety of Civil War programs only to quietly back away from them later. One exception was an NBC drama originally called The Blue and the Gray.
When first announced, the project was an ambitious look at how the outbreak of war split apart one Virginia family. A father took up arms against his sons; brothers fought against brother. By the time the series made it to the air in 1961, its focus had shifted to just two brothers fighting on opposite sides. It also underwent two title changes, ultimately airing as The Americans.
Critics were quick to point out how the new series went to great lengths to avoid controversy. With one brother fighting for the Union and the other for the Confederacy, The Americans offered equal coverage to both sides of the conflict. Did this split focus play a role in the show’s cancellation after just 17 episodes? Or were viewers simply not interested in a TV drama about the Civil War?
NBC’s The Blue and the Gray
NBC announced plans to adapt Dr. Henry Steele Commager’s two-volume The Blue and the Gray for TV in July 1959. The network hoped to have a weekly series on the air during the 1960-1961 season. The author would be involved in the production of the series. Although based on a work of non-fiction, the network explained it would take some dramatic license with historical events .
Val Adams reported the following how NBC hoped to avoid controversy by presenting both sides of the Civil War. The series would tell the story of the Canfield family of West Virginia. The father, youngest son, and a cousin decide to fight for the Union. Two older sons leave to join the Confederacy. The mother, two daughters, and their grandfather stay at home to worry. Other distantly related Canfields would be featured occasionally. There might also be a romance between two “semi-kissin’ cousins” .
Frank Telford, in charge of supervising the series, explained how it would emphasize family:
This family is symbolic of the nation as a whole in that the American people were divided by the various political and social issues that led to the fraternal conflict. “The Blue and the Gray” will not be a documentary series but rather a weekly drama relating to the adventures of various members of a fictitious family. Our viewers will not only be able to see and learn about the Civil War Das, but will be vicariously live them. 
NBC planned to put several production units to work filming 39 episodes of The Blue and the Gray. The episodes would be either 60 or 90 minutes in length .
Delays & Name Changes
In April 1960, Broadcasting published its annual look at fall pilots. Included was an update on The Blue and the Gray. Darryl Hickman and Dick Davalos would star as brothers Ben and Jeff Canfield. Ben was a Union soldier; Jeff a Confederate soldier. James Warner Bellah was writing scripts for the series based on narratives collected by Henry Steele Commager. The pilot would be filmed at MGM with Gordon Kay producing and R.G. Springsteen directing. .
A few months later, NBC announced it was postponing The Blue and the Gray. The networks were trimming or dropping their Civil War centennial programming. Rather than premiere in the fall, NBC indicated it would probably hold The Blue and the Gray until January 1961–if a sponsor could be found .
As the 1960-1961 season got underway in September, The Blue and the Gray was one of the only Civil War projects still afloat, considered neutral because of its split focus on the Union and the Confederacy . Around this time, some sources began referring to the series as The Canfield Brothers. Yet when Broadcast published its first look at the 1961-1962 season that same month, it called the series The Blue and the Gray .
In October, The New York Times referred to the series as The Canfield Brothers when reporting that NBC had tentatively decided to use it as a mid-season replacement. It would take over for the cancelled Riverboat beginning Monday, January 23rd, 1961 . The series would air in the 7:30-8:30PM time slot. By late November, NBC finalized plans to debut The Canfield Brothers in January but not before one last title changed–this time to simply The Americans .
In early January 1961, Broadcasting published a list of sponsors for The Americans: Dow Chemical, Block Drug Company, Pan American Coffee Bureau, Pepsi Cola, and Reader’s Digest Services . According to the Associated Press, NBC’s sales department had trouble selling the series under the name The Blue and the Gray.
“Some sponsors felt that the title was repugnant to the south,” a network spokesman said. “Don’t ask me why” . Frank Telford liked the original title but came around to the new one. “I’m a Civil War buff,” he explained, “and a lot of the other buffs I know believe ‘The Americans’ is a better title. It was a war fought between Americans who each deeply believed in a principle” .
Co-star Darryl Hickman, whose character was a Union soldier, didn’t understand all the fuss. In addition, he wasn’t happy that the network gave Dick Davalos all the action to avoid potentially offending southerners by depicting rebels being killed. “The southerners I’ve talked to all favor the idea,” he said. “The network and advertising agency are off the track. We don’t deal with the issues of economics or slavery” .
The Americans was about family, Hickman stressed:
There is never any question of wrong or right in the series and we highlight the fact that the brothers are swayed by emotional bonds with the two sides.
We also make it clear the bond of brotherhood transcends their beliefs. No matter what the situation, we could never shoot one another.
My own problem is to talk the producers into giving the Yankee soldier the same glamour and excitement that the Confederate soldier has. But the prospects don’t look good. 
Despite the delays, name changes, trouble with sponsors, and a frustrated co-star, The Americans was finally getting on the air.
War Comes to the Canfields
The Americans premiered on Monday, January 23rd, 1961 with an episode titled “Harper’s Ferry, 1861.” John Gay provided the script for the episode, based on a story by James Warner Bellah . Neither Ben nor Jeff are soldiers at the outset of the episode. When Virginia votes to secede from the Union, the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry becomes a tinderbox. Jeff, the more volatile brother, strongly supports the Confederacy. He’s approached by the Virginia Militia and asked to count the federal troops defending the arsenal.
Meanwhile, the arsenal’s commanding officer asks Ben to help raise volunteers to defend it. Although Ben desperately wants to see the Union preserved he refuses to help because he won’t divide the town. Their widowed father (played by John McIntire) is heartbroken at the prospect of war while Sally (played by Gigi Perreau)–a girl in love with both brothers–can’t stand to see Ben and Jeff so conflicted.
Tragically, Pa Canfield dies when the retreating Union forces blow up the arsenal to keep it out of the hands of the Confederacy. The heartbroken brothers realize they can’t reconcile their differences. Ben crosses the Potomac river to join the Union Army while Jeff stays behind with the Virginia Militia, soon to become part of the Confederate Army.
Positive Reviews for The Americans
In their reviews of the premiere episode, many TV critics noted how the series went to great lengths to appeal to everyone. “Despite its attempt to be all things to all onlookers,” Walter Hawyver wrote in The Knickerbocker News, “The Americans could turn out to be one of the more popular shows of the season.” He praised the cinematography and the use of outdoor sets while expressing “reservations” about the two co-stars .
John P. Shanley of The New York Times was more blunt. “This kind of scrupulous observance of equal attention to each side in the conflict is calculated not to turn viewers against the show, the network nor the sponsor’s products.” Nevertheless, he predicted The Americans “may become a popular attraction. It will not appeal to Civil War buffs seeking authentic battle intelligence. But it has almost continual action and a presentable pair of stars” .
“This series is the first weekly, filmed dramatic program which attempts to show both sides of the Civil war on an equal basis,” said Jack Allen of the Buffalo Courier-Express. In contrast to Shanley, Allen suggested The Americans “should be authentic enough to please the many Civil War buffs who check on historical security quite thoroughly” .
Harold A. Nichols mentioned authenticity three times in his review for The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He also acknowledged the impact of Hugo Friedhofer’s original score, which “set the proper mood for the drama in ominous tones.” He seemed critical of the amount of violence, however. “If MGM minimizes the dramatic hokum,” he concluded, “‘The Americans’ could become a compelling series week after week” .
And A Few Negative Reviews
Yet there were negative reviews as well. Like other critics, The Milwaukee Sentinel‘s Janet Kern couldn’t help but notice even-handed The Americans was about Civil War. She called it “a show which comes about as close as a show can to satisfying everyone.” Perhaps those most satisfied, she suggested, were those looking for educational TV. “Unfortunately,” Kern concluded, “the fight scenes are too obviously phony and the filming (especially the sound portion of the film) is not on a par with the scripting and acting” .
A particularly negative review came from Fred Danzig of United Press International. He blasted the creators of the series for taking “cinematic short cuts” rather than giving their characters “believable personalities and honestly-evoked emotions” . The fact that NBC promoted The Americans as a quality drama particularly frustrated Danzig:
The opening Monday night made use of a voice-over narrative and drawings. Director Douglas Heyes drew a swirling portrait with his crowd scene and all this spurred the hope that quality would prevail. The hope was jolted when an aloof, B-movie-type was flashed on the screen. Hope was stuck down again by a pat family dinner scene. From then on, things moved downhill like a rolling cannonball. 
Finally, Wade H. Mosby of The Milwaukee Journal lamented “the necessity of establishing characters and a story line” during the first episode because it “accomplished little dramatically. The basic conflict, instead of developing emotionally, was driving home with punches in the nose, and these are already a dime a dozen on TV” .
Episodes Split Focus On Canfield Brothers
Following the events of the premiere episode, The Americans turned into something of an anthology, alternating focus on one of the Canfield brothers. Each episode featured narration at the start and end. There wasn’t a huge battle every week, although most episodes included some sort of fighting. Plots involved spying, theft, prisoners of war, romance, sabotage, desertion, vengeance.
Historical events provided the backdrop for some episodes. For example, in one episode Jeff falls in love with infamous Confederate spy Rose Greenhow after being sent undercover to Washington, D.C. He even agrees to murder for her. In another episode, Ben confronts criminals in the North defrauding the government out of Union Army enlistment bonuses. The final episode featured a Congressional investigation into the disastrous Union defeat during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
The series maintained limited continuity between episodes. For example, an early episode involves Ben meets two Union officers with very different opinions about military tactics. The story continued two weeks later and saw the return of the officer with a modern take on warfare. It took place during the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Battle of First Manassas).
Other episodes: Jeff tries to recruit mountain men to serve as sharpshooters for the Confederacy; Ben gets captured and imprisoned at Libby Prison in Richmond; Jeff joins forces with a Union deserter to save a town from bandits; Ben finds himself caught up in a dangerous romance between a friend and a Confederate soldier’s fiancee; Jeff must steal Union artillery his unit desperately needs.
The Brothers Reunite
Aside from the premiere, Ben and Jeff only appeared together in two other episodes. In “The Reconnaissance,” the two run into one another back Harper’s Ferry. Jeff is scouting and Ben is on patrol. Stonewall Jackson made a brief appearance in this episode, played by William Boyett.
In “The Sentry,” Jeff helps sabotage a railroad bridge in order to destroy a Union ammunition train. During the mission, one of the Union soldiers guarding the bridge is wounded and left to die. A horrified Jeff realizes that Ben was on sentry duty and worries his brother has been killed.
Guest stars included Michael Rennie, Jackie Coogan, Nina Foch, Jack Lord, Lee Marvin, Robert Redford, Robert Culp, Susan Oliver, Jack Elam, and Ray Walston.
As announced by NBC, Henry Steele Commager served as a historical consultant for the series. The Americans also had a military advisor: retired Army Captain John S. Peters.
A Quiet Cancellation
A total of 17 episodes of The Americans were filmed. The last episode aired on May 15th. The following week, NBC started showing repeats. A few weeks later, the network announced it was cancelling the series due to disappointing ratings. According to The New York Times, although The Americans performed “slightly better” than Riverboat (the show it replaced) it didn’t do as well as NBC had hoped .
The cancellation enraged Darryl Hickman. “I think it was the best show of the season,” he declared. “We did 17 shows, two or three were lousy, some were fair, and eight were too good for TV. I got letters from youngsters who said their history teachers assigned them to watch it” . His attempts to get a straight answer from network executives about the cancellation were unsuccessful.
“Seven-thirty Monday night is too early a time spot,” explained executive producer Frank Telford. “This show isn’t for kids, or at least I hoped it wasn’t. I thought it was more meaningful” . He also argued that new TV shows shouldn’t debut in January, when viewers are locked into their TV habits.
In addition, Telford laid some of the blame on himself. “I was tired of private eyes and westerns and their cliches and wanted to do stories that didn’t always have a bad guy doing something wrong and a good guy catching him. NBC gave me a chance with ‘The Americans’ and I failed” .
As a result of NBC’s desire to avoid angering anyone with its Civil War drama, did the network doom the series? Would it have done any better had it premiered in September 1960 instead of mid-season?
Repeats of The Americans aired throughout the summer of 1961 with all but one episode given a repeat showing. The last repeat aired on September 11th. The series was never syndicated in the United States.
In June 1961, Popular Library published a tie-in novel based on the series–also called The Americans–written by Donald Honig. It took place before and during the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, which was fought May 1864. During the fighting, one of the brothers has no choice but to shoot the other. But Ben and Jeff also enjoy a brief reunion before parting ways.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive has four episodes of The Americans in its collection. The Paley Center for Media has a copy of one of those episodes as well. At least two others circulate among private collectors.
2 Adams, Val. “News of TV and Radio: Blue and Gray Get Equal Time on Series–Items.” New York Times. 2 Aug. 1959: X11.
5 “Spring Preview of Fall Pilots.” Broadcasting. 4 Apr. 1960: 111.
6 Adams, Val. “News of Television and Radio–Civil War.” New York Times. 12 Jun. 1960: 127.
7 Pearson, Howard. “Gunsmoke Starts Sixth Season on TV Tonight.” Deseret News [Salt Lake City, UT]. 3 Sep. 1960: 2B.
8 “Now Shaping Up: 1961-62 Season.” Broadcasting. 5 Sep. 1960: 28.
9 Adams, Val. “Civil War Series Will Replace ‘Riverboat’ on N.B.C. in 1961.” New York Times. 21 Oct. 1960: 67.
10 Allen, Jack. “Civil War Is Background For New Drama Series.” Buffalo Courier-Express [Buffalo, NY]. 26 Nov. 1960: 8.
11 “Business briefly…” Broadcasting. 2 Jan. 1961: 30.
12 Bacon, James. “TV Fights Civil War All Over Again.” Long Island Star-Journal. Associated Press. 7 Jan. 1961: 8.
14 Scott, Vernon. “Brother of ‘Dobie Gillis’ Latches on to Own TV Show.” Sarasota Journal [Sarasota, FL]. United Press International. 2 Feb. 1961: 20.
16 Sources vary on exactly which work by James Warner Bellah the script for “Harper’s Ferry: 1861” was based on. According to contemporary newspaper reviews, it was drawn from an unnamed historical novel. Internet Movie Database, claims Bellah’s short story “First Blood at Harper’s Ferry” served as the basis for the episode. It appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1953 and was later collected in The Valiant Virginians.
17 Hawver, Walter. “NBC, Reopening Civil War, Takes Sides–Both of ‘Em.” Knickerbocker News [Albany, NY]. 24 Jan. 1961: A11.
18 Shanley, John P. “Television: ‘New York Scrapbook’.” New York Times. 24 Jan. 1961: 59.
19 Allen, Jack. “Harpers Ferry Tale Opens Civil War Series.” Buffalo Courier-Express [Buffalo, NY]. 23 Jan. 1961: 6.
20 Nichols, Harold A. “Civil War Series Authentic.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, NY]. 24 Jan. 1961: 8.
21 Kern, Janet. “Janet Kern’s Column: Darin Show Scores.” Milwaukee Sentinel. 3 Feb. 1961: 6-1.
22 Danzig, Fred. “‘The Americans’ In Sorry Debut.” Beaver County Times [Beaver, PA]. United Press International. 24 Jan. 1961: 9.
23 Mosby, Wade H. “First Shot of Civil War Muffled in Series Debut.” Milwaukee Journal. 24 Jan. 1961, sec. 2: 8.
24 Adams, Val. “News of Television-Radio: Borge Returns.” New York Times. 4 Jun. 1961: X31.
25 Finnigan, Joseph. “Hickman Objects.” St. Petersburg Times TV-Radio Dial [St. Petersburg, FL]. 4 Jun. 1961: 9.
26 Humphrey, Hal. “The Death of ‘The Americans’.” The Milwaukee Journal TV Screen. 25 Jun. 1961: 7.
Originally Published September 28th, 2016
Last Updated May 7th, 2018