Thursday, March 16, 2006

Walking Tall

You just didn't mess with Buford Pusser.

The Tennessee county sheriff only knew one thing -- justice. If you came into his county and started trouble, you would soon regret it. They killed his wife, left him for dead, shot him, stabbed him. But Pusser never backed down. His weapon of choice was a big stick. And he always walked tall.

At least that is the Hollywood version. The real Buford Pusser was a Tennessee sheriff --- of McNairy County, in West Tennessee, back in the 1960s. His wife really was killed by criminals gunning for him. He really was left for dead. His jaw really was shot off. He really did rid his county of a band of gambling, prostitution and bootlegging crooks.

But the real Pusser, alas, carried no big stick. Hollywood wrote that into the script when Pusser's story was filmed as "Walking Tall" in 1973. Shot in Chester County, Tenn., just down the road from McNairy County, the first "Walking Tall" told the story of Pusser returning home with his wife and two children to Tennessee after a career as a Marine and a professional wrestler. He soon runs afoul of the local operation, is left for dead, and framed. Pusser runs for sheriff and runs the crooks out of town.

Texas actor Joe Don Baker was a fair Pusser, the movie struck a chord, and became a box-office hit in 1973. The real Pusser became a folk hero. He was to have played himself in the sequel. But Pusser died under mysterious circumstances following a car accident near his McNairy County home on Aug. 21, 1974. (The remains of his charred vehicle are on display at Carbo's Police Museum in Pigeon Forge.)

Swedish actor Bo Svenson took over the role in two sequels, "Part 2, Walking Tall" (1974) and "Final Chapter, Walking Tall" (1977). At one time, Svenson and "Gunsmoke" star James Arness were the two tallest actors in Hollywood at 6-7. Svenson was a likeable Pusser and bore a striking resemblance to the real-life sheriff.

NBC revived "Walking Tall" as a mid-season replacement TV series in 1981. Svenson again played Pusser, who was this time the sheriff of the fictional McNeal County, Tenn. Pusser and his three deputies (Harold Sylvester, Jeff Lester and Courtney Pledger) still ruled the county with an iron fist (and a big stick). When he wasn't enforcing the law, Pusser was busy raising his two children: Mike (Rad Daly) and Dwana (Heather McAdams), with help from his father, Carl (Walter Barnes).

The show premiered in January 1981 and should have been a huge hit. Airing against the backdrop of the fledgling Reagan Administration, Pusser's cowboy brand of law-and-order meshed perfectly with the times. But the show was canceled after seven episodes worth of low ratings.

Sony released the entire series on DVD last week. Watching the program 25 years later, it is tempting to label it as cartoonish. Pusser spouts piously against drug use and other crimes. The crooks act as if they just stepped out of the pages of a comic book. The show opens with a corny title sequence, full of red, white and blue patriotism, complete with a no-nonsense theme song ("Walking Tall/I'm putting evil on the run.")

Judging by the first episode, "The Killing of McNeal County's Children," the whole thing feels cheap. Svenson, so good in the earlier theatrical films and in other roles (his turn as the evil Ivan in CBS' "Magnum, p.i." comes to mind), walks through many of his scenes here. His over acting would make William Shatner proud.

The episode's plot centers around Pusser's efforts to curb the distribution of PCP (Phencyclidine) to McNeal County teenagers. The opening scene shows a high schooler crash his car after smoking a joint laced with marijuana and PCP. In the hospital, he loses his mind and becomes a drooling vegetable.

"Give me a break!" you want to yell.

Turns out PCP does indeed cause delirium and extreme agitation. The so-called Angel Dust is manufactured in illegal home laboratories, just as is portrayed in the show. The show's message is frighteningly relevant in 2006. Images of evildoers cooking up a batch of drugs in a barn will be familiar to anyone who has ever heard about methamphetamines.

Pusser's "I am in the law" attitude still resonates. Who doesn't like the image of a tall, square-jawed crime buster doing whatever it takes to solve the case? Few in Middle America. Why do you think Tim Hutchison keeps winning elections here in Knox County?

"Walking Tall" certainly wasn't Emmy material. The TV series doesn't come anywhere close to the appeal of the original "Walking Tall" motion pictures. (Neither, incidentally, does the pathetic 2003 motion picture "update" of the story, starring professional wrestler "The Rock" Johnson.)

But I'm glad the show finally made it to home video. The story of the lone crusader standing up for what is right will never go out of style.

Who knows. Maybe the best thing the state of Tennessee needs in its current fight against meth is another Buford Pusser. Or at least someone who walks tall.

"Walking Tall: The Complete Series" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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