Peter Breck, Nick on ‘The Big Valley’, Dies at 82

Peter Breck, the actor who played Nick Barkley on ABC’s one-hour Western starring Barbara Stanwyck, The Big Valley (1965-1969), died in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada last Monday. He was 82. His death was announced by his wife, Diane, on the Big Valley fan forum Web site The Big Valley Writing Desk.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Breck, who appeared in movies such as I Want to Live! with Susan Hayward and as the father in Benji, for my online column in 2006. I found him to be nothing like his hot-tempered rancher character. He was kind and generous, talking about a range of issues for the short interview, which I conducted for Fox’s release of Big Valley‘s first season on DVD. He was also a regular on the TV Western Maverick starring James Garner. He ran an acting school in Canada with his wife after the couple moved there.

From my 2006 column and interview with Mr. Breck:

“For cinematic, larger-than-life television, The Big Valley cannot be topped. Starring five first-rate actors as a wealthy ranching family, the sweeping, colorful outdoors series depicts an idealized American West. Respect is earned, ranching is business, and cowboys are heroes. It’s rugged individualism in one rich, powerful family.

“The Barkleys own half the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870s. Widow Victoria is played by the indomitable movie star Barbara Stanwyck, eldest Jarrod, a San Francisco lawyer, by the late Richard Long, angelic Audra by Linda Evans (Dynasty) and half-brother Heath by a young Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man). Despite Heath being fathered by her late husband and another woman, Victoria welcomes him into the family with her head held high, in defiance of the community, which refuses to accept Heath as a Barkley.

“The Big Valley also features Heath’s rough, intemperate brother Nick, played by actor Peter Breck, who recalls the fistfights, the shootouts and the demanding stunts. In one episode, Nick drives a Mexican cattleman, played by Martin Landau, off Barkley land when he won’t remove an anthrax-infected herd. But Breck’s horse was spooked.

“I was dragged,” Breck remembered, speaking from his home in Canada. “Martin Landau was shooting over a rock and as I rode up, an explosion went off. I was over my mark, and Boom! The horse went on the wildest eleven seconds I ever had. At one point, I looked up and got it right in the bottom of my chin.” Another time, Nick and Heath encounter a rabid beast ready to pounce on the livestock. “It was a timber wolf,” Breck said. “They threw him off a rock and on to me and doubled the close-up with a German shepherd. 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.”

“That episode was “Night of the Wolf,” which memorably features director Ron Howard, already playing Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, as a boy who looks up to Nick. Other first season guest stars include Katharine Ross (The Graduate) as the beautiful Mexican aristocrat who is Heath’s first love, Charles Bronson as an alcoholic trapped in a collapsed church with Victoria following an earthquake and Beah Richards (Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) as a woman who helped raise bastard Heath.

“Like Gunsmoke, The Big Valley dramatized serious conflicts on principle—involving property rights, justice, racism—and, like the similarly structured Bonanza, the action centered on a family. There the parallels end.

“From its rousing opening score, the show conveys an epic feel, with gorgeous photography in southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County that lingers on wide vistas that give the moral dilemmas a broader canvass. The cast is easy on the eyes, too, whether Audra gallops across the landscape in her form-fitting Western wear to watch the wild Mustangs or the virile Barkley boys are on screen.

“The Barkleys’ idealism, evident in nearly every episode, is anchored in realism threaded with ironic humor. Each member of the family is unique—Jarrod is consistently rational, Nick is passionate, Heath is introspective, Audra is kind—and they are united by common values.

“Holding them together, insisting that each be treated as an individual, is Miss Stanwyck as their mother, an unwavering voice of reason and integrity and always with love. 77-year-old Breck, whose stage work spans Shakespeare, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and his personal favorite, Cyrano de Bergerac, said working with one of the screen’s brightest stars was a constant reward.

“I’d get chills,” Breck explained. “She would look at me with those eyes and our characters had a bond. Barbara was a tiger.” Breck, who lost his only child to leukemia when his son was 28, lives with his wife of 46 years in British Columbia, far from Hollywood in more ways than geography. “I do miss the old Hollywood,” he told this columnist, “I’m not too happy with what’s there now. I did Jiminy Glick in La La Wood—they gave me the role of the head of the studio—and it was just a rush job. Everything’s too fast now and you can’t go bang-bang-bang and get a performance.” As an afterthought, he added: “They don’t make good movies anymore.”

“They do, however, make DVDs of good television shows—and Breck, whose horseback riding in the majestic show still rustles up the Old West, ought to be proud to know that The Big Valley is one of them.”