The Big Valley was the last major successful network Western series of the 1960s, running four seasons, from 1965 through 1969; none of the others that came after it, Branded, Hondo, Lancer, etc., even came close to that kind of longevity. Most of its appeal, besides high production values, lay in its casting and the starring role played by Barbara Stanwyck (or "Miss Barbara Stanwyck" as she was referred to in the credits) as Victoria Barkley, the matriarch ruling over a huge ranch outside of Stockton, CA, and the San Joachin Valley. Stanwyck was also a partner in the series' production company, Four Star. The Big Valley opens in the year 1876, six years after the death of Victoria's husband, Thomas Barkley, who was shot to death amid a battle with the railroad, and in the first episode the railroad is once more trying to take the land of the homesteaders adjacent to the Barkley ranch. The series' model was very obviously Bonanza (along with elements of the movie Duel in the Sun), which, with a relatively inexperienced cast, was already a hit in its fourth season at the time this series was conceived. The sensibilities of the period being what they were, Victoria Barkley could not have produced four siblings from different husbands, as Lorne Greene's Ben Cartwright had by different wives on Bonanza -- but her offspring were still as varied as the Cartwright family. The Barkleys, in the opening, include three brothers, Jarrod (Richard Long), the oldest and the lawyer, mature and deliberative; Nick (Peter Breck), the ramrod of the ranch, bold but also very hot-tempered; and Eugene (Charles Briles), the youngest, who looks up to both of his brothers (who goes off to college and, after the first season, is never seen or mentioned again); and one daughter, Audra (Linda Evans), who is by turns spoiled and vulnerable, and solitary.
In the first episode, a mysterious young man named Heath (Lee Majors) arrives at the ranch, claiming to be Tom Barkley's illegitimate son -- which sends Nick into a rage that nearly has him killing the visitor, until he joins the Barkley brothers in defending their neighbors from the railroad. The Barkley ranch may not have been as big as the Ponderosa on Bonanza, but it was just as attractive to would-be interlopers and troublemakers, and across four seasons the series managed to put some fresh twists on a lot of Western conventions, mostly by virtue of what Stanwyck's presence allowed in the way of scripting. With more acting and filmmaking experience than the rest of the cast combined, she could put her own stamp and fresh, interesting interpretations on stories as old as the "Vanishing Lady" ("The Disappearance") -- the same story that inspired Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes -- and even prison stories ("Four Days to Furnace Creek") in later seasons. The other prime actor in the series was, oddly enough, Lee Majors, who, at the outset of his career, understood the notion of less being more. His approach to the role of Heath in the first seaon is reminiscent of Steve McQueen with a touch of James Dean and Dennis Hopper. Whereas Richard Long did his best with a role that was usually fairly dullish, Breck tended to overact in his role, which, when it wasn't very physical, tended to get difficult speeches that required more subtlety than he had as an actor. As for Linda Evans, she was so untrained as an actress that she was actually occasionally interesting to watch in her scattershot approach to the role, which, as a solitary romantic dreamer, lent itself to a certain amorphous quality. To the audience's relief, she also got better during the later seasons of the show and was a fully competent actress by the series' end.
The first season of the series was devoted principally to establishing who the Barkleys were, the dimensions of their 30,000-acre ranch (which, in addition to cattle, included a mine, timber, a vineyard, orange groves, and -- in keeping with the sensibilities of the mid-'60s -- included at least one black ranch hand), and establishing the characters' individual personalities. Stanwyck evidently believed that scarcity created demand, and in many of the episodes, her work was confined to no more than two or three major scenes, enough to keep audiences satisfied while not overexposing her on the small screen. By the end of the season, youngest son Eugene was gone from memory and Jarrod, Nick, Heath, and Audra were the focus of the series, along with Victoria. The series was the creation of renowned author A.I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman, and produced by Arthur Gardner, Arnold Laven, and Jules Levy. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi