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BUS STOP: "A Lion Walks Among Us" (1961).

BUS STOP was an ABC-TV series that ran for only one season (1961-62) and focused on the assorted characters passing through a Sunrise, Colorado bus stop/diner. Regulars included Rhodes Reason as Sheriff Will Mayberry, Richard Anderson as district attorney Glenn Wagner and 1940s sex symbol Marilyn Maxwell -- who'd fallen on harder times and into the bottle by the '60s -- as diner owner Grace Sherwood. The drama boasted up-and-coming young guest stars like Tuesday Weld, Dean Stockwell, Ellen Burstyn, and Robert Redford, with this particular episode, directed by a 36-year-old Robert Altman (who helmed eight episodes of the show), one of its most controversial. Filmed under the title "Told By an Idiot" and based on the novel The Judgment by New York Times journalist, Washington bureau chief and liberal voice of reason Tom Wicker, the teleplay by Ellis Kadison (who went onto write Disney's THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BANANA SPLITS ADVENTURE HOUR) swapped the book's North Carolina backdrop for rural Colorado and cast 18-year-old singing sensation Fabian [Forte] (in his TV acting debut, shortly after buying out his own contract from idolmaking music producer Bob Marcucci) as a devilishly charismatic, icy-hearted, young sociopath who leaves physical and emotional carnage in his wake. Finally telecast on December 3, 1961, after the nervous network kept shifting its timeslot, this hour-long episode was so controversial that over a dozen local affiliates refused to run the "unsavory" show and a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency -- investigating violent TV's impact on teenage behavior -- screened excerpts of the program following its debut... The teleplay doesn't waste any time, with hitchhiker Luke Freeman (Fabian) getting dumped in the quiet town of Sunrise after his hip pick-up patter freaks out a female driver (Dianne Foster), who happens to be the wife of local DA Wagner. And before the three-minute teaser is even over, this punk has gunned down an aged shopkeeper and emptied the cash register, while warbling the gospel spiritual "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." No question, Luke is one crazy son of a bitch. Making a pitstop at a rockin' roadhouse (owned by Dabbs Greer, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE's Reverend Alden), "big daddy" Luke serenades blonde "pretty baby" teen Linda (SHOTGUN WEDDING's Jenny Maxwell), pulls a butterfly knife on her pissed-off boyfriend (BOOGIE NIGHTS' Robert Ridgely, who also belts out a jungle-novelty rock 'n' roll tune!), and is saved from a full-blown rumble by Sheriff Mayberry, who quickly suspects this sneering, slang-slinging' stranger for the recent killing. But when tossed into a jail cell, Luke burns himself with a stogie while singing the Negro spiritual "I Got a Hiding Place," then alleges that his injuries were caused by overzealous cops. Unfortunately, after this riveting opening, the story shifts into a more stagey courtroom drama at its midpoint, focusing on Luke's hearing for the store owner's murder. Non-Fabian sequences are fairly routine and its adult characters are ridiculously high-strung -- Wagner's missus Sally is an overwrought mess following her roadside run-in with randy Luke, Wagner blows a gasket after Luke claims "that old Mother Goose couldn't keep her paws off of my innocent young person" and publicly assaults him, and Luke's bleeding-heart defense counsel tries to prove that the prosecution's sole witness, jittery alcoholic Sally, can't be trusted... Young fans who initially swooned for Fabian's dreamy looks and insipid pop tunes were certainly in for a rude surprise with this gig. Though earlier cast as a supporting heartthrob in lightweight outings like the Bing Crosby college-comedy HIGH TIME or the John Wayne-starrer NORTH TO ALASKA, Forte here displays his legitimate thespic potential and steals every scene as this shady drifter. The son of an itinerant tent-preacher, reform school alumnus and "sexual psychotic" (according to the episode's press release), Luke's anti-authority attitude might make him a hero to the town's teenagers, but he'll just as easily stab his own benevolent lawyer when the opportunity arises. Yet despite all of the protests from prudish critics who objected to the story's bleak mindset and Fabian's compelling, justice-perverting degenerate, "A Lion Walks Among Us" is surprisingly mild stuff by today's standards, with evil fucking degenerate Luke no worse than any typical LAW & ORDER culprit.

© 2018 by Steven Puchalski.