A corrupt sheriff in Damon County named Dan Wheeler (Vic Morrow) arrests Ben Richards (Christopher George) on trumped charges for hitchhiking, and takes him to the county jail.
There, the sheriff makes Ben “work off” his debt, at a rate of fifty dollars a day.
Ben tries to help other inmates on the work crew, but they are all terrified of the sheriff. He even kills one inmate, an alcoholic named Charley (Jerry Ayres).
Soon, Ben learns that Wheeler is illicitly funneling money to a pet project, Wheeler Park for children. He is also forcing a single-mother, Clarice (Collin Wilcox Horne) to be his lover.
Ben must escape from custody before Fletcher and his men show up, help extricate Clarice from her situation, and put the corrupt Sheriff away for good.
Three weeks; three romances.
That’s my motto for The Immortal (1970 – 1971) this week, and for the episode, “The Rainbow Butcher.” Once more, Ben Richards gets involved, at least a little, with a beautiful woman who needs help. This time that woman is one who has become -- the episode implies -- a corrupt sheriff’s sexual slave. She wants Ben to stay with her, after the sheriff is arrested.
But the road beckons, and Ben has to leave.
And therefore, the man-on-the-run format is revealed fully as a male sexual fantasy. Here, a “special man” gets to romance a different woman in every port, or city, and owes her nothing, afterwards. He’s “got to be free” and move on, after all. His life is at stake, right?
Some the women are but momentary sexual conquests, but the man has no responsibility to them beyond the responsibility of the moment. Please notice that, as far as I have seen in my research, there have been no “woman on the run” TV series.
Only men get this gig.
The key virtue of “The Rainbow Butcher” is the presence of the late, great Vic Morrow as Sheriff Wheeler. The actor creates a character here who is fun to hate, and the best “villain of the week” we have seen so far on the series (at least since the pilot movie).
Sure, Fletcher and his goons are always on the hunt, but Wheeler is a corrupt murderer who will do anything to get his way, and to meet his desires. He’s such a creepy guy. The corrupt lawman is a well-worn trope, perhaps, but in Morrow’s hands, the character is more memorable (and by that I mean more despicable) than the average cliché. The episode is compelling enough that you really come to hate the guy, and want to see him fall.
The character of Wheeler also excavates another quality of the man-on-the-run format: the corrupt establishment. Clearly, this character, and indeed the format, are an outgrowth of the Western genre. A lone stranger arrives in town (think Clint Eastwood, or Christopher George, here) and cleans it up, freeing a subjugated or terrorized populace and then restoring justice.
Then, just as is the case in the Western format, the lone protagonist (often a mystery man, again, like Ben Richards), goes on his merry way, refusing to stay and become part of the community he saved.
If anything consistently disappoints about this series, however, it is the generic nature of Ben Richards. He’s just a “good guy” with “good looks” (a healthy libido too…) who is a “good Samaritan.”
Perhaps Richards is so assiduously maintained as so generic a character because it is easier for the men in the audience to identify with him; to imagine themselves in his place. If he were too distinct, too unusual, to individualized, I suppose identification would be more difficult.
Yet, as he stands, Ben is a bit of a bland protagonist. He can drive, he can run, he can fight, and he can romance the ladies. But how does that make him different, for instance, from David Vincent (in The Invaders) or Richard Kimball (in The Fugitive)? Intriguingly, I think a case could be made that Bill Bixby, in The Incredible Hulk (1978-1981) imbued his man-on-the-run series with a more distinctive protagonist. He projected a more thoughtful, individual quality than some of the alpha men who have taken on this role (Roy Thinnes, David Janssen, Judson Scott, Christopher George, etc.)
I believe every word I have written here is true and accurate, and yet, I must confess, “The Rainbow Butcher” manages to prove compelling. I don’t know exactly how or why that is true. Everything that happens here is entirely predictable.
Perhaps it is something inherent in the professionalism of the production, or the sheer villainy of the evil sheriff. But again, even an episode of The Immortal that feels formulaic emerges as wholly entertaining. Perhaps it is just the simplicity of the characters and their situations. There is elegance, and even relief, in that simplicity.
Next week: “Man on a Punched Card.”