Peter Breck

d. February 6, 2012

Peter Breck, the actor best known as Nick Barkley in the long-running western series The Big Valley, died Feb. 6 in Vancouver, B.C., from complications of dementia. He was 82.

The Big Valley ran for four seasons on ABC beginning in September 1965 and was often described as a matriarchal Bonanza, with Barbara Stanwyck starring as Victoria Barkley, head of a California ranching family. Like Ben Cartwright, she had three very different sons: Breck was the hotheaded, two-fisted Nick; Richard Long played the intellectual Jarrod; and Lee Majors was their brooding, illegitimate half-brother Heath. Linda Evans played something the Cartwright boys didn’t have, a sister named Audra. (Another brother, Eugene, appeared in some early episodes before he became one of those TV series characters who just fades away, never to be seen or mentioned again.)

Breck was born in Massachusetts, served in the Navy and then studied drama and English at the University of Houston. He was appearing in George Bernard Shaw’s “Man of Destiny” at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1957 when New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson caught the show and gave him good notices. Actor Robert Mitchum was also in the audience that night and offered Breck a small part in his next film, “Thunder Road.”

Breck went on to appear in other movies, many of them low-budget and easily forgotten. “I Want to Live!” was a hit and brought star Susan Hayward an Oscar, but Breck’s role in the film was small and uncredited, just as in “Thunder Road.” He got better billing in exploitation junk like “The Beatniks,” “Hootenanny Hoot” and “The Crawling Hand,” and in well-made westerns such as “The Wild and the Innocent” and “The Glory Guys.”

It was television that brought him fame and success. Breck already had made his TV debut in a 1956 episode of Sheriff of Cochise when Mitchum brought him back to Hollywood. Appearances in Tombstone Territory, Highway Patrol, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wagon Train, Sea Hunt and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre followed.

Powell’s Four Star company then signed him to star in its new western series Black Saddle, whose pilot had aired on Zane Grey Theatre with another actor in the lead. Breck played former gunslinger Clay Culhane, who gave up the gun to become a frontier lawyer. Russell Johnson co-starred as the U.S. marshal who keeps a skeptical eye on him. The show debuted on NBC in January 1959, then spent the 1959-60 season on ABC.

When Black Saddle ended, Breck signed with Warner Bros. and immediately found himself making guest shots in most of the studio’s popular TV series, including Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Lawman, Maverick, The Roaring 20s, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6. He played the recurring role of Doc Holliday in Maverick’s last season, giving Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick someone to play off of after original Maverick star James Garner and then Garner’s replacement Roger Moore both left the show. And he starred as a Las Vegas cop in a pilot that didn’t sell.

Warners also put Breck in two higher profile features: “Portrait of a Mobster” (1961), with Vic Morrow, Leslie Parrish and Ray Danton; and “Lad: A Dog” (1962), a typically heartwarming family-and-canine story featuring Carroll O’Connor and Angela Cartwright. Breck’s best film role, however, was undoubtedly in 1963’s “Shock Corridor,” in which he played a reporter who has himself committed to an insane asylum to uncover a hot story. The film, written and directed by Samuel Fuller, has become another cult item over the years.

Away from Warner Bros., Breck appeared in episodes of Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits, Mr. Novak, Perry Mason, Bonanza, Branded and Kraft Suspense Theatre before returning to Four Star for his four-year run in The Big Valley.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he co-starred with a dog again in “Benji” and had guest roles in some popular series, including Mission: Impossible, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, McMillan and Wife and The Incredible Hulk, but he spent most of his time away from Hollywood and back on the stage. He and his wife Diane, a former dancer whom he married in 1960, eventually settled in Vancouver where they founded an acting school.

One of Breck’s later TV appearances came in an episode of The Fall Guy, the rather silly 1981-1986 series fronted by his former Big Valley co-star Lee Majors, who played a movie stuntman moonlighting as a bounty hunter. The 1984 episode “King of the Cowboys” was another of producer-writer Glen Larson’s strained tributes to TV’s better days, with a guest cast that included Lawman star John Russell, Yancy Derringer’s Jock Mahoney, Roy Rogers playing himself and Breck reliving his Nick Barkley role.

Breck’s last screen appearances included a 1996 episode of the revived Outer Limits and the 2004 Martin Short comedy, “Jiminy Glick in La La Wood,” both made in Canada.


Peter Breck with Barbara Stanwyck in “The Big Valley,” above; with Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road,” below.

“Black Saddle” regulars Breck, Anna Lisa and Russell Johnson.

At left: Breck and Linda Evans publicize “The Big Valley’s” move from Wednesdays to Mondays in July 1966.

Below: Semi-new faces

of 1963 — Breck, Pamela

Austin and Joby Baker in

MGM’s best forgotten pop musical, “Hootenanny Hoot.”