Gunsmoke's The Scavengers: Yaphet Kotto, Cicely Tyson & Slim Pickens Guest Star
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Gunsmoke's The Scavengers: Yaphet Kotto, Cicely Tyson & Slim Pickens Guest Star

Gunsmoke's The Scavengers premiered on Monday night, November 16, 1970. Yaphet Kotto guest stars as Piney Biggs, an African-American who wanders into the aftermath of an Indian massacre and helps himself to a fancy gold pocket watch. Regulars James Arness, Milburn Stone, Ken Curtis and Buck Taylor are joined by Cicely Tyson and Slim Pickens in the cast.

CBS's Gunsmoke (1955-75) proved to be a groundbreaking TV western series. The 1970 episode "The Scavengers" features Yaphet Kotto as Piney Biggs, a black man whose story of an Indian massacre proves to have dire consequences.

Gunsmoke's The Scavengers: Cast & Credits

Jim Byrnes wrote the teleplay for "The Scavengers," with Robert Totten in the director's chair. Regulars, guest stars and supporting players are:

  • Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness)
  • Doc Adams (Milburn Stone)
  • Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis)
  • Newly O'Brian (Buck Taylor)
  • Piney Biggs (Yaphet Kotto)
  • Rachel Biggs (Cicely Tyson)
  • Colley (Slim Pickens)
  • Rath (Roy Jenson)
  • Logan (Link Wyler)
  • Lieutenant (Victor Holchak)
  • Ogana (James Almanzar)
  • Scarface (Eddie Little Sky)
  • Bull (Victor Izay)
  • Sam Noonan (Glenn Strange)
  • Nathan Burke (Ted Jordan)
  • Merilee Biggs (Jerelyn Fields)
  • Livery Man (Hank Wise)
  • Driver (Steve Raines)
  • Townsman on Horseback (Bert Madrid)

Yaphet Kotto as he appeared in the 1980s - NBC-TV

The Scavengers: Episode Synopsis

Piney Biggs stumbles upon the scene of an Indian massacre at a white campground. Thirsty and exhausted, Piney makes his way among the corpses, drinking water from a canteen and later lifting a gold pocket watch from a dead man. When Piney hears voices approaching, he jabs an arrow into his left side and plays dead. Now scavenging the scene is a small band of filthy, desperate Indians, who help themselves to the dead's possessions, including Piney's pilfered watch.

The self-wounded Piney is later found on the roadside and brought into Dodge City. After Doc Adams patches him up, Piney tells his fanciful tale of the massacre to Marshal Dillon, falsely identifying the scavenging Indians as the grisly perpetrators. Piney also informs Matt that the Indians stole his gold watch, one purportedly given to him by his father which plays a tune. In order to help Piney out, Sam Noonan, the bartender at the Long Branch, gives him a pair of his boots, one of which contains money Sam had collected on Piney's behalf. 

Colley and two other bounty hunters nab four of the Indian scavengers and bring them to Dodge, hoping to collect the $2,000 reward on them. One of the Indians has a scar down his face, just like Piney reported to Marshal Dillon, with the gold watch also among their possessions. Piney's pregnant wife Rachel knows that her husband never owned a gold watch, but Piney tells her to keep quiet.

The four innocent scavenging Indians are found guilty and slated to hang at Fort Dodge. But a suspicious Colley and his bounty hunters want to make sure Piney doesn't have a change of heart and ruin their chance to collect the reward, ushering Piney into the Bull's Head Saloon after hours where they plan to wait out the execution scheduled for four o'clock in the morning.

The Scavengers: Air Date & Network Competition

"The Scavengers" was aired over CBS on Monday night, November 16, 1970, in the 7:30-8:30 (ET) time slot. Network competition that fall evening was The Young Lawyers (ABC) and The Red Skelton Show and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (NBC). 

The Scavengers: Analysis & Review

African-Americans were scarce in the early days of television. That was particularly true for TV westerns, which mainly featured white stars complemented by white guest stars and supporting players. Things began to change, however, in the mid-1960s and early '70s as advances in civil rights took root and TV shows finally discovered the wealth of black talent available.

Yaphet Kotto and Cicely Tyson, two African-American thespians marked for later success, garner the starring roles in the 1970 Gunsmoke episode "The Scavengers." Kotto (Alien, Brubaker, The Star Chamber,) has the lead role of Piney Biggs, a black man with a pregnant wife and young daughter who desires a better life for them in California. All he needs is $100 to get them moving. 

Cicely Tyson (Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Hoodlum) plays Piney's wife Rachel, whose sense of justice is far more keen than her husband's. When Rachel discovers that four Indians are about to hang because of Piney's false story, she implores her man to go to the law and remedy the injustice. A chastened Piney does just that, but is sidelined by a trio of bounty hunters before he can reach the marshal's office.

The great character actor Slim Pickens (1919-1983) – who winningly played Major "King" Kong in 1964's Dr. Strangelove, merrily riding a nuclear bomb down into oblivion – appears as Colley, the head bounty hunter. Clad in dirty clothes with a beat-up hat and a mangy fur coat, Pickens gives one of his patented performances as the episode's principal heavy, a slimy, leering, backwoods SOB who will stop at nothing to collect his reward money. Catching sight of Colley and his two bedraggled confederates, one can almost smell these rancid buzzards whose last bath was probably a good six months ago.  

Perhaps the best scenes take place at the Bull's Head after hours where Colley and his boys are holding Piney until the Indians are duly executed. The clock finally strikes four in the morning, with Colley assuming that the Indians are now dead. Piney then turns the tables on his captors, grabbing a gun and plugging Colley's two confederates. Deputy marshal Newly O'Brian hears the shots and rushes in, arresting Colley and his men. He also informs Piney that the execution never took place. Rachel Biggs had told Doc Adams of Piney's false story, who in turn had informed Newly, with the deputy marshal telegraphing Fort Dodge to halt the hanging.

"The Scavengers," which was followed the next week by the gripping "The Witness" (11/23/70), comes from Gunsmoke's landmark 16th season and is episode #525 of 635 in the series. The N-word is actually used in this segment by Cicely Tyson's Rachel, but to good effect when she describes how some people equate bad things to both Indians and black folks. "The Scavengers" won a coveted Black Image Award.

Top Image

  • Gunsmoke's distinctive Dodge City TV logo - CBS-TV

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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