PARALLEL UNIVERSE: ‘Then Came Bronson’ Short-Lived Iconic TV Series Put Many Americans on Two Wheels

Note: This column first ran on Aug. 25, 2010. I mentioned I no longer had a motorcycle. This was remedied this past December when I purchased a 2003 Ural Tourist sidecar rig. I plan to write about my experiences with this machine in the near future.

By David M. Kinchen

If you’re of a certain age — a baby boomer or, like me, of the slightly older pre-World War II generation — a short-lived television series called “Then Came Bronson” may have put you on the road to riding a motorcycle.

I was reminded of TCB, the shorthand name of the show for a surprisingly large cohort of fans, when I picked up my September-October 2010 of Motorcycle Classics magazine and found a nice spead on the show, including sidebars on TCB fans who’ve turned 1960s vintage Harley-Davidson Sportsters into replicas of the red bike Bronson rode in the show.

The pilot appeared in the spring of 1969 and starred a relatively unknown Michael Parks as San Francisco newspaper reporter Jim Bronson, with a young (28) Martin Sheen (“Apocalypse Now,” “The West Wing”) playing his friend who committed suicide and left a note leaving his motorcycle to Bronson. Bonnie Bedelia (“Heart Like a Wheel,” “Die Hard”) was his romantic interest in several episodes.

As the story in the magazine relates, “the story behind Then Came Bronson (TCB) is as interesting as it is unlikely. The pilot aired on March 24, 1969, and was released in Europe as a feature film. The series ran for only the 1969-1970 television season and was then cancelled. Since then, it has become a cult-classic among motorcycle enthusiasts and devotees of American television.”

The Motorcycle Classics story relates that Jarvis was retained as adviser for the pilot, and the legendary Bud Ekins (1930-2007) provided the motorcycle stunts and technical accuracy. The list of guest stars included well-known actors and motorcycle racers and enthusiasts. The soundtrack included vocals by Parks, including “Long Lonesome Highway,” which along with Parks’ signature “Hang in There” tagline has become symbolic of the of the series.”

Along with “The Rockford Files,” a Friday night fixture for me, I watched the show avidly. At the time, we were living in Milwaukee and I was a reporter and editor at The Milwaukee Sentinel. I had ridden Cushman scooters in high school in the 1950s and motorcycles were a logical progression. My first bike was a small Honda, followed by a Triumph and a Bultaco street bike, eventually ending up with a nifty white 1971 BMW R50/5 bike that took me on the open roads around the Midwest. I no longer own a motorcycle — I sold my Honda Shadow last fall — but I still look back on my riding days with pleasure — and TCB may have been the catalyst.

As they say in the TV business, TCB was based on a true story, that began many years earlier with the true-life exploits of Birney Jarvis. Jarvis’ good friend, the late Denne Bart Petitclerc, a noted American journalist, screenwriter and television producer, wrote the series pilot. Robert H. Justman of Star Trek fame was executive producer and Parks played the title character. Steve McQueen, a motorcycle and car nut, was reportedly offered the part but had to decline due to his heavy feature film-making commitments.

There are at least two websites devoted to TCB:

Motorcycle Classics: “Many TCB fans found a personal defining moment in the opening credits of each episode, as Bronson pulled up beside a weary, beaten-down commuter in a tired station wagon:
Commuter: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “Yeah.”
Commuter: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Commuter: “Man, I wish I was you.”
Bronson: “Really?”
Commuter: “Yeah.”
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

The scene shifts to Bronson leaving the big city and “Working for the Man” for The Long Lonesome Highway and Freedom.” Avid motorcyclists call cars “cages.”

The implied message was, the MC story notes: “Don’t ever become the guy in the station wagon.”

With TV shows of the past being made into feature films (“Starsky and Hutch,” “The A-Team” and “Get Smart!”) maybe it’s time for a revived “Then Came Bronson.” After all, a new version of “Hawaii 5-0” will reappear in a few weeks on the home screen. “Book ’em, Dan-O.”

Link to Motorcycle Classics story on Then Came Bronson


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