Back in the Saddle : 'Gambler' Sequel On NBC Rounds Up Many Stars Of TV's Classic Westerns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Drury and Doug McClure were playing cowboy again and relishing every minute of it.

"We're having a wonderful time," Drury said. "It's been a ball."

"We could do this all day and for another five or six years," McClure said. "This has been a joy and great fun."

From 1962 to 1971, Drury and McClure rode the range in the top-rated NBC Western "The Virginian," based on Owen Wister's classic novel. Drury starred as the laconic Virginian, and McClure was his friend, the young cowhand Trampas.

Drury and McClure are horsing around again in NBC's four-hour miniseries "The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw," which stars Kenny Rogers as the devil-may-care gambler Brady Hawkes.

"Gambler Returns" marks the fourth time Rogers has played Hawkes. This time around Hawkes teams up with a feisty ex-madam named Burgundy Jones (country singer Reba McEntire) and a new partner, Ethan Cassidy (Rick Rossovich), for an adventure that takes the trio from Mexico to a high-stakes poker game in San Francisco.

Sprinkled throughout the miniseries are numerous familiar faces from classic TV Westerns, including Drury and McClure; Gene Barry ("Bat Masterson"); David Carradine ("Kung Fu"); Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford ("The Rifleman"); Jack Kelly ("Maverick"); Linda Evans ("The Big Valley"); Hugh O'Brian ("Wyatt Earp") and Clint Walker ("Cheyenne"). Even Patrick MacNee of "The Avengers" is on hand as a British card shark.

Drury and McClure have teamed up three times since "The Virginian" left the airwaves two decades ago. "We did 'A Fall Guy' and we did a special called 'How the West Was Fun' for ABC," Drury said during a break in filming at a ranch in Valencia. "This is the first time we have had anything substantial to do."

Because the producers of "The Gambler Returns" couldn't get permission from Universal to use the names of the Virginian and Trampas, Drury and McClure are playing two rodeo owners named Jim and Doug who help Hawkes and his friends.

Drury has lived in Houston, Tex., for the past several years and has been involved in the oil/gas and real estate business. "I don't have a permanent place of residence here, but I think I will be opening one," he said. "I have a good agent. I definitely want to do more acting."

McClure, whose most recent series was the syndicated sitcom "Out of This World," has remained close friends with Drury. "We see each other at celebrity ropings," McClure said.

Repeats of "The Virginian" air on the Family Channel and in numerous countries worldwide. Drury believes "The Virginian" has remained popular because of its 90-minute format. "Our writers were able to create guest-star roles that were very interesting," he said. "They were able to attract the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and George C. Scott and Robert Redford."

Says McClure: 'I don't think it was the guest stars which kept it fresh, just our love for it, our energy and our joy doing it. I always felt I had a great thing going doing Trampas."

"The Gambler Returns" concludes with an elaborate poker match that pits Brady Hawkes against the likes of Bat Masterson, Maverick and even Teddy Roosevelt (Claude Akins).

"This just isn't old people who used to be known in television getting together," quipped the dapper MacNee. "It's great fun and they have written it very well. It's a very exciting poker game."

NacNee was initially set to play Bret and Bart Maverick's charming cousin, Beauregard, whom Roger Moore originated on the ABC series in 1960. "I had dinner with Roger Moore in London about a month ago and I said I was playing Beau and he said, 'You're not!' " MacNee recalled. "By the time I got back here, they had changed the name (of the character) to Sir Colin Douglas. I don't know if it had anything to do with Roger Moore. So I am playing an Englishman who beat him (Hawkes) when he came to England."

Resting in his trailer at the Culver Studios before shooting the poker game, Gene Barry said that he was getting a kick out of appearing in the miniseries. "It is great re-creating a childhood role," he said with a smile. Barry originally played Masterson, the famed lawman, Indian fighter, gambler and dandy who wore a derby and carried a gold-topped cane in the 1958-61 NBC series.

Thirty years ago, he wasn't quite as happy as Bat. "I had starred in about 10 or 11 movies (including 'The War of the Worlds')," he said. "Then they called me about playing Bat Masterson. It turned my life around in that it made me very, very popular in most of the world. But it made me known as a character. I didn't want to lose my own identity. As Bat was growing, I was losing Gene. I think it bothered me psychologically and I became withdrawn. Eventually it closed after 118 episodes and I went on to other things."

"The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw" airs tonight and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC; "The Virginian" airs Saturdays at noon on the Family Channel.

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