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Jack Bettridge

Of Maverick, Cigars and the Tube

Posted: Aug 26, 2009 3:51pm ET
No, this isn't a blog about Sarah Palin and cylindrical, metal packages for storing cigars. Rather, it involves watching cigars on television. Specifically, the classic Western "Maverick."

As discussed in a previous blog, cigar smoking on television or in the movies always captures my attention. That is especially true when the cigar is an important prop in the action and it is used more creatively—and positively—than the stereotype of popping a perfecto in the character's mouth to make it clear that he is a gangster or some other villain. Cigars in the negative were done to death using Edward G. Robinson and then later in the Courageous Cat cartoon with Chauncey Frog, who was clearly based on Robinson. (I will admit, however, that one of the greatest cigars scenes of all time is in a gangster movie: Albert Finney shooting up his rivals with a submachine gun between puffs in Miller's Crossing.)

Anyway, my guiltiest television pleasure of late has been watching old episodes of "Maverick," which currently are airing several times a day on the Encore Westerns cable network. The show is a treasure trove of positive cigar sightings as the main characters (read: the good guys) smoke them in almost every episode. It wasn't unusual that characters smoked on TV during this show's era (late '50s-early '60s), but mainly what you saw were cigarettes, which must have pleased many sponsors (tobacco ads were still allowed on television at that time). On "Maverick" what you had was smoking that wasn't advertising driven, especially as—in historical accuracy—the cigars in question didn't sport labels, because brands weren't much in fashion in the late nineteenth century. What you see for the most part are stogies—the real stogies, named for Conestoga wagon drivers, that were long and tapered at either end. Occasionally, they smoke Cubans—mainly when the plot line calls for an expensive cigar.

If you've never seen it—and you should definitely check it out—"Maverick" was the anti-Western in a time when the Western genre crowded the airwaves. The show was a slyly humorous send-up of Westerns, but never played for boffo comedy. It starred—for most of the show's run—James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick, itinerant brothers and experts at poker. The Mavericks were reluctant heroes—when they were heroes at all—looking out for themselves first and always willing to run from a fight. Garner essentially reprised the role in "The Rockford Files."

There are some great solo bits with cigars: Bret blows smoke out of opposite sides of his mouth to demonstrate exasperation, a barber clips Bart's stogie with his shears (the squeamish side of me hopes he was using Barbicide). But the ultimate cigar episode is "The People's Friend." Through a series of plot twists, Bart is pressed into running for state senator while passing through a frontier town. His opponent, a crook, hands out cigars as part of his campaign. Bart collects a few himself. Problem is Bart has somehow found himself on a reform ticket, which is pledged to wipe out not only corruption, but also a number of the vices he enjoys, including cigars, alcohol and gambling. Every time he is set to indulge in any of them, one of his supporters arrives and he must make a show of forsaking them. All this and he's expected to kiss babies.

Kind of reminds me of stresses I myself encounter occasionally.

At one point he throws away a fine cigar only to reveal to the camera that he has deftly palmed it (thank the lord). By episode's end he manages to foil the crook, while avoiding election, retaining all of his vices and getting the girl. It's a happy ending that I find myself aspiring to—even in these enlightened times.


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