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Loosely based on Stephen Vincent Benet's story The Sobbin Women, the successful 1954 movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starring Howard Keel, was itself the basis of a short-lived 1982 TV-series of the same name.
Based only vaguely on the original movie however, the TV-series presented a modern day version of events located on a Californian cattle ranch rather than the Oregon mountains in 1850. Further major changes included the renaming of the seven Pontipee brothers, Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank and Gideon who became the McFadden Brothers in 1982 - Adam, Brian, Crane, Daniel, Evan, Ford and Guthrie. On her arrival at the family home Jane Powell's character was shown the kitchen and ordered to make the dinner. Terri Treas' character, Hannah, named after the baby born in the movie musical, was expected to do likewise, if not told quite so forcefully. In both versions though, the new cook would soon upturn the dining table and both sets of brothers end up on the floor with their dinners in their laps!
Aiming the TV version at the widest audience possible, the creators chose to reduce the age of Gideon, or rather, Guthrie to 12 years old. River, who arrived at the auditions with his guitar, promptly burst into a convincing Elvis Presley impersonation charming the show's producer James H. Brown who offered him the part. "I just leaped five feet into the air," said River. "I got all red and freaked out. It was my first television show. Real exciting - a glorious moment. It was something I just waited for, and it's such a rare thing, being at the right place at the right time and just fitting the part."
Despite only having a television budget to play with, the series was shot entirely on location 150 miles north-east of San Francisco in the little town of Murphys, and made extensive and ambitious use of real livestock, rugged locations and hundreds of extras.
Dispensing with studio-based sets throughout the series, the McFaddens' ranch was in fact the home of local resident Judith Marvin. "I remember what a dear child he was," reminisces Marvin who can vividly recall just how much River, even at twelve years of age, seemed to feel totally responsible for his whole family given that they were so short of money at the time.
Once the series began airing on television, River began to receive fan mail for the first time in his career. He was most surprised by this and it was not something he had expected. Nevertheless, he felt that this too was another huge responsibility that he must shoulder and promptly spent his spare time locked away in the family motor-home very carefully answering each letter personally, by hand.
Shortly before he died, River returned to the ranch where his mainstream career had begun more than ten years earlier. Recalling the unexpected, bittersweet visit, Judith Marvin, who still lived on the ranch, got the impression that River had returned to her home as if looking for something, trying to recreate something he perhaps hadn't felt for quite some time. "A time in his life when he was happy, young and innocent," Marvin believes.
Despite this visit, it would seem that River was unable to find whatever it was he was looking for, whatever it was he was so desperately in need of.