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Farewell to another TV western cowboy

February 26, 2012
By JANICE R. KIASKI - Community editor, Herald-Star ( , The Herald-Star

I'd have to say my heart cracked a little when I heard.

The death of Peter Breck didn't exactly make big headline news earlier this month, but for me it was front-page priority.

Here was a piece of my childhood, a little part of me, chipped away.

Breck was Nick Barkley, the hot-headed son of California ranch owner Victoria Barkley, portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, in the TV western "The Big Valley." It ran from 1965-69.

As a 9-year-old I was a faithful viewer of this western that centered around all the, in retrospect, hard-to-believe drama that befell the Barkley family, which included Audra Barkley, the sister played by Linda Evans; brother Jarrod Barkley, played by Richard Long, who died of a heart attack in his late 40s; and half brother Heath Barkley, played by Lee Majors who went on to become "The Six Million Dollar Man." Remember him?

I saw Majors promoting hearing aids on a TV ad recently and was surprised. Shocked actually.

You mean TV cowboys age and have trouble hearing?

Yes, and they die, too, as did Breck on Feb. 6 at the age of 82. He had been living for many years in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife, Diane, of 40-plus years.

In his post "Big Valley" life, Breck founded an acting school there; did a lot of theater - and I'm jealous to say my sister Cathy saw him in a production in Columbus; and he wrote a column for a magazine called "Wildest Westerns."

A decent singer, he also recorded a CD called "Just Kickin' Back" of all original songs - cowboy kind of songs.

Before "Big Valley" the dark-haired, rugged-looking Breck had worked as a regular on two other TV westerns: "Maverick" as Doc Holliday opposite James Garner and "Black Saddle," where he played a gunman-turned-lawyer opposite Russell Johnson, a guy you might remember as the professor on "Gilligan's Island."

In real life, Breck's only son died of leukemia, and Breck himself died after a long battle with dementia, so the story goes.

How very, very sad.

And yet how very, very happy I was to have watched him back then and in more recent years as nostalgic television made a comeback, and you can even today watch the old shows.

I grew up watching the westerns - from "Gunsmoke" and "Rifleman" to "Wild Wild West" and "Rawhide."

I'd sit close to the TV, straddling a chair turned backwards that I pretended was my horse. Maybe a belt were my reins, and hangers the stirrups.

I rode right along on those posses and shot the bad guys.

When I see the old westerns today, I think maybe the storylines were a little lame, maybe it was not the best acting, and it's tough to believe how clean their clothes were for being cowboys, but so what.

It was good clean cowboy stuff, and my childhood was the better for it.

The old cowboys aging and dying off - now there's a reality that stings.

But thanks for the ride, Peter Breck. Happy trails to you.

(Kiaski, a resident of Steubenville, is a staff columnist and features writer for the Herald-Star and the Weirton Daily Times and community editor for the Herald-Star. She can be contacted at

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