A rabid wolf and Ronny Howard made for one of the best episodes of The Big Valley
Peter Breck always seemed to get the exotic animal episodes — with good reason.
Did you ever notice that Nick Barkley had bad luck with animals on The Big Valley? A cougar mauls him in "Run of the Cat." He's tricked into taking a bunch of sheep as a poker debt in "A Flock of Trouble." He traps a bird of prey in "Cage of Eagles"… which leads to a man (Pernell Robert) blowing up a mine atop him. And, in "Night of the Wolf," a rabid wolf mauls him.
There was a reason that character seemed to get all the exotic animal episodes. The actor behind Nick Barkley had a way with creatures.
"Generally, when there were more unusual animals involved, I ended up getting those shows. Perhaps the producers felt I worked well with critters," Big Valley star Peter Breck once wrote in "Cut 'Em Off at the Pass," his column in Wildest Westerns Magazine.
"In fact, a few years prior, I had a Collie for a co-star in a family film called Lad: A Dog…" Breck said. "Actually, I have always owned animals. Humans can learn a lot from 'em. To me, one of the most interesting episodes of The Big Valley involved my Nick Barkley character and a carnivorous mammal. It was called 'Night of the Wolf' which aired on December 1, 1965."
Indeed, this early episode in season one, just 12th overall in the long-running series, remains a memorable standout. Why? Rabies and Opie.
In the opening scene, Nick and brother Heath are camping at night when a wild wolf pounces on the older Barkley son. It's a genuinely startling moment. So how did they pull it off?
"It was a timber wolf," Breck explained in a 2006 interview with Scott Holleran. "They threw him off a rock and on to me."
Nick rolls about on the ground with the animal latched onto him. That shot, however, was a more common canine.
"[They] doubled the close-up with a German Shepherd," Breck said. "We would rehearse it and the gaffers would get up there with him and throw him at me. The paws were going every which way."
Thinking he is dying, Nick wanders away from the Barkley homestead in Stockton, seeking peace in his last days on earth. (Obviously, he does not die.) In his journey, he comes upon a kind widow named Julia (Nancy Olson) and her boy Tommy (Ron Howard). Nick bequeaths his spurs to the kid. The two actors, a quarter-century apart in age, share a tearful goodbye. The scene leans on the precocious acting skills of young Howard.
Certainly, Mayberry fans were no strangers to the range of "Ronny." He was still in the midst of his run on The Andy Griffith Show. The child star did get to rarely appear on other shows here and there during his time on The Andy Griffith Show. Aside from this episode, he took small guest roles on Route 66, Dr. Kildare and The Fugitive.
As for Peter Breck, he continued to show off his skills with dogs. "After The Big Valley, [I worked with] a wonderful mutt in the children's classic Benji," he wrote in Wildest Westerns. "I played a doctor who worried the tramp dog might have some kind of rash or sickness, kicked Benji out of the house — and was booed by everyone in the audience!"