The 1950’s brought us one of more intriguing (and lasting) of showbiz phenomena’s—The TV Star. Suddenly, outside of the movies, theatre, and radio loomed a new pop landscape, one where big buckaroos could be grabbed and across-the-board popularity could be achieved. Gene Barry, who passed away this week at the age of 90, was a TV Star, one with particular staying power, and a vivid persona—The New York Times obit mentioned insouciance, yet his was speckled with a comic inner irony-that made him extremely likeable and easily memorable.
Of course Barry, born Eugene Klass on June 14, 1919, in New York, actually did his time in radio, on stage and up on the big screen, starting out as a radio singer on New York’s WHN, graduated for roles opposite Mae West and in musicals before hitting it big in George Pal’s early sci-fi extravaganza, The War of the Worlds in 1953. Barry’s movie career was largely negligible, outside of a co-starring role in the Robert Mitchum’s corny but endearing Thunder Road (1958) and two cool outings with Samuel Fuller ( a director known for his work with wooden leading men and outré character types) in China Gate (1957) and Forty Guns (1957).
Barry was perfectly cast as the dapper and suave (but very macho) Bat Masterson (108 episodes from 1958-1961). The series has been in syndication for years, and it doesn’t measure up well to the better TV westerns. But Barry’s dandified Masterson, a derby-wearing, cane-twirling, clothes-horse, ladies-man Westerner who preferred to use his brain over his obvious brawn was a huge hit with audiences, both parents and western-addicted kiddies, and his cheeky charm established him as a true prince of the small screen.