#49: ‘Then Came Bronson’

Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence. (This series ran originally in the Classic 1960’s TV Facebook group.)

#49: Then Came Bronson: ‘Amid Splinters of the Thunderbolt

Then Came Bronson

March 1969 saw the airing of the TV movie Then Came Bronson, starring Michael Parks as newspaper reporter James Bronson. After his best friend commits suicide, Bronson becomes disillusioned with his life and career, hops on the back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and becomes the latest and most modern example of the “wandering man” television lead, travelling across the country to use his “with-it” philosophy to solve the problems of the people he meets along the way.

The movie was well-received, and with the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper movie Easy Rider (which contained a similar premise) becoming a surprise hit over the summer, Bronson was given his own NBC television series. The show drew immediate comparisons to Route 66 (on which Parks had guest starred in one of that series’ final episodes), but was more firmly rooted in the counterculture of late 1960s’ America.

On October 22, 1969, the following episode, “Amid Splinters of the Thunderbolt,” aired:

This segment sees Bronson travel to rural Colorado to look up an old boyhood friend named Bucky O’Neill, who had become a minister. Bronson finds O’Neill living in a secluded cabin. He’s left the priesthood and has a pregnant girlfriend named Mary (Zora Lamphert).

Michael Parks, Then Came Bronson
Michael Parks in ‘Then Came Bronson’

O’Neill is a deeply troubled man, still deeply faithful. He is wracked with guilt at his decision to leave the ministry and is ravaged by self-doubt and self-hatred. He is also horrified by the prospect of his imminent fatherhood, believing he will not have what it takes to raise the child. Mary’s pregnancy potentially threatens her life, but neither she nor O’Neill plan to seek the services of a physician, believing that the matter should be left in God’s hands. This causes Bronson and O’Neill to come in conflict.

Bruce Dern has had many prime roles during his career, but his performance in “Thunderbolt” is as good as any I’ve ever seen from him.

Despite being popular during its run, and offering up fare of usually excellent caliber, Then Came Bronson was a “one-season-and-done” wonder. Although rarely seen since, it maintains a strong following today from those who remember the program.

(Source for all images: IMDb)

About Todd M. Pence

Todd M Pence has been an amateur historian and scholar of American television for the past 35 years. “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960” is the product of decades of research, not just in active viewing but in extensive combing of newspaper and magazine archives to read the original reviews of programs at the time they aired. He has also reached out to fellow television researchers to get their opinions. Pence maintains that the decade of the 1960's constituted the zenith of American primetime television drama, and that we will probably never see its like again. His purpose in compiling this list was to preserve this history and to spotlight many exceptional programs which have been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. Pence holds a BA in Journalism from West Virginia University and has worked for the past 20 years in the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public School system

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