Northwest Passage (TV series)

Northwest Passage is a 26-episode half-hour adventure television series produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer about Major Robert Rogers during the time of the French and Indian War (1756–1763). The show derived its title and the main characters Rogers, Towne, and Marriner from the 1937 novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts, and from the 1940 MGM feature film based on the novel. The scope of the novel was much broader than that of the series, and the second half of the book included an historically based attempt by Rogers to find a water route through North America as a "passage" to the Pacific Ocean. This attempt, lending its name to the novel and used by Roberts as a metaphor for the questing human spirit, is referenced in the first episode.

Northwest Passage
From left: Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett, 1958
StarringKeith Larsen
Buddy Ebsen
Don Burnett
Country of originUSA
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes26
Running time30 min.
Production company(s)Metro Goldwyn Mayer
DistributorMGM Television
Original networkNBC
Picture formatColor
Original releaseSeptember 14, 1958 
March 13, 1959

One of the earlier series telecast in color, Northwest Passage aired new episodes on NBC from September 14, 1958, to March 13, 1959. Keith Larsen (1924–2006) played the lead role (originally that of Spencer Tracy in the film); Buddy Ebsen (1908–2003), later the star of CBS's The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones, appeared as Sergeant Hunk Marriner (originally played in the film by Walter Brennan, who at the time of this series was starring in the TV series The Real McCoys), and Don Burnett co-starred as Ensign Langdon Towne (originally played by Robert Young, at the time of this series starring in Father Knows Best).[1]

Rogers formed a volunteer group, Rogers' Rangers, determined to fight with the British against the French and their Indian allies in what later became northern New York State. The series premiere entitled "Fight at the River" featured 24-year-old Denny Scott Miller as Ranger Cooper. He was later Duke Shannon on the Western Wagon Train and the military husband in NBC's Mona McCluskey.[2]

Eight episodes, The Gunsmith, The Burning Village, The Bond Women, The Break Out, The Vulture, The Traitor, The Assassin, The Hostage were directed by Jacques Tourneur. Three episodes, The Red Coat, The Secret of the Cliff, Stab in the Back were directed by George waGGner. One episode, Fight at the River was directed by Alan Crosland Jr.

Selected episodes

  • "The Red Coat" on September 21 featured Patrick Macnee, who later starred as John Steed in The Avengers (TV series), and Alan Hale, Jr., later the title character in Casey Jones and the skipper of CBS's Gilligan's Island.
  • "The Bound Women" directed by Jacques Tourneur, on October 12 co-starred character actor Claude Akins and Angie Dickinson, later television's Police Woman.
  • "Break Out" directed by Jacques Tourneur, on October 19 featured Bruce Gordon as Major Marten and Bing Russell (father of Kurt Russell) as Private Ben Smith. Rogers, Marriner, and Towne are captured by a French patrol and thrown into a prison stockade, where they faced torture by the sadistic French commander, Major Marten.
  • "The Assassin" directed by Jacques Tourneur, on November 16 featured Pernell Roberts as Captain Jacques Chavez.
  • "The Long Rifle" on November 23 featured Douglas Kennedy as Eli Dillon.
  • "Vengeance Trail" on December 21 featured Paul Fix, also appearing as the sheriff on Chuck Connors's The Rifleman.
  • "The Vulture" directed by Jacques Tourneur, on December 28 featured character actor Jay Novello (1904–1982).
  • In "The Counterfeiters" on January 2, Rogers, Marriner, and Towne dine at a local tavern. Whey they pay their bill, they learn that their money, which came from the military paymaster, is counterfeit. An investigation reveals other criminal activity.
  • In "Death Rides the Wind" on January 23, two escaped convicts break into a trapper's cabin. While the man sleeps, they eat his food, steal his pelts and a rifle and leave. The trapper was dying of smallpox. The Rangers must catch the convicts to keep them for infecting the nearest town.
  • In "The Fourth Brother" on January 30, a trapper is robbed and murdered, suspicion immediately falls on the Wade brothers, known for their troublemaking. However, Dan Wade, the youngest brother played by Gene Nelson (1920–1996), insists that he had nothing to do with the crime and pleads with Major Rogers for help.
  • In "The Ambush" on February 6, character actor I. Stanford Jolley played an unnamed magistrate.
  • "Stab in the Back" directed by George waGGner, on February 20 features Paul Picerni as Guy Perro. Picerni later joined the cast of ABC's The Untouchables.
  • "Trial by Fire" on March 6 features actor Peter Whitney as Dumauier.
  • "The Killers", the series finale, features John Russell (1921–1991), also the costar of ABC's Lawman.[2]

Northwest Passage, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production, aired at 7:30 Eastern on Sunday opposite the first half-hour of Maverick, the popular western series on ABC, and the alternating cycle of Bachelor Father and The Jack Benny Program on CBS. The program continued in reruns until September 8, 1959.[3]

Prior to Northwest Passage, Larsen had appeared in the title role on CBS's western series Brave Eagle, with Kim Winona (1930–1978) as Morning Star.

Movies from series episodes

From 1959 to 1961, MGM theatrically released three movies which consisted of three edited and combined episodes of the Northwest Passage television series for each film. The first was Frontier Rangers (1959) (runtime: 84 minutes), directed by Jacques Tourneur containing three episodes "The Gunsmith," "The Bond Women," and "The Burning Village." The second movie was Mission of Danger (1959) (79 min), which contained "The Red Coat" and "The Secret of the Cliff" directed by George waGGner and " "Break Out" directed by Jacques Tourneur. The last was Fury River (1961), which contained “Fight at the River” directed by Alan Crosland Jr. ,”Stab in the Back," directed by George waGGner and "The Vulture" directed by Jacques Tourneur (74 min).[4][5]


  1. Alex McNeil, Total Television, New York: Penguin Books, 1996, 4th ed., p. 608
  2. IMDB, Northwest Passage" Title page:
  3. 1958–1959 American network television schedule, appendix of Total Television
  4. April 2010 issue of Now Playing, A Viewer's Guide to Turner Classic Movies, page 9
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