Dried salt for snow and glaciers in Fairbanks: The terrible early television shows set in Alaska

Histories of Alaska: Early Alaska-themed TV shows like “The Alaskans,” “Klondike,” and “Kodiak” were little-loved, short-lived and reflected a limited understanding of Alaska. But that wasn’t really the point.

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Despite the multitude of splendors that Alaska contains, relatively few non-reality television shows have been set here. Longtime Alaskans can name the more recent exceptions, including “Northern Exposure,” “Men in Trees,” and “Alaska Daily,” all primarily shot elsewhere. With current scripted shows like “Molly of Denali,” “The Great North,” and “True Detective: Night Country,” this might be the heyday of Alaska on TV, skipping over a bar that is nearly, but not quite, lying on the ground.

More forgotten are the earliest representations of Alaska on television, with even more varying degrees of accuracy in their depictions of the north. Shows like “The Alaskans” (1959-1960), “Klondike” (1960-1961) and “Kodiak” (1974) were little-loved and accordingly short-lived. Yet they reflected both a limited understanding of Alaska and poorly taught the uninitiated what life in Alaska was like.

As regards Alaska representation on television, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” a CBS series that ran from 1955 to 1958, requires a short aside. Set during the Klondike gold rush, a recurring theme, Sgt. Preston of the North-West Mounted Police and his dog, Yukon King, brought law and order to the remote Klondike. So while not set in Alaska, the setting has been inextricably linked with Alaska since the 1890s.

Finally, there was “The Alaskans,” which aired 37 50-minute episodes from 1959 to 1960 on ABC. Roger Moore and Jeff York starred as fur-trapping conmen in gold rush-era Skagway. The series combined high costs, low ratings, generic scripts, and the complete disdain of everyone involved, more than earning its quick dismissal from the network schedule.

This Roger Moore was indeed the man who would become James Bond in 1973. But in 1959, he was just another working actor. Fresh off a run starring in an “Ivanhoe” television series, though amid a career otherwise light on notable credits, he was forced to accept a role he despised.

In 1972, Moore said, “I did my most appalling television series ever. This was “The Alaskans,” set in Alaska at the time of the Gold Rush. Only we never went to Alaska to make it. They built Alaska on the studio lot in California, sprinkled it with dried salt and white corn flakes and there we were, snowbound. You can imagine dashing around in thick, heavy furs and gloves, pretending to be icy cold — while the Californian sun is gently turning you into fried meat.”

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The heat was but one of the negative experiences from the show. Moore added, “For many shots they were using airplane engines rigged up to simulate snow storms and gales. The ‘snow’ was salt and gypsum and having that blown in your face by wind machines and plane engines is no fun. What was worse, the camera crew had gauze masks to protect them, and they were standing behind the camera, and we the actors had to take the full blast. At the end of every day, we had our eyes washed out and frequently the eyes were scratched from the gypsum.”

Shot in California and starring a very British actor, the series featured one realistic aspect. Moore noted, “They brought in genuine sled dogs, who must have been a bit confused by the weather if nothing else. Still, it just goes to show how you can fool people when they are watching a screen.”

Leslie Halliwell, an executive with ITV, a British television network, described “The Alaskans” “as tatty-looking and badly acted a series as ever came out of a major studio.” As producer Hugh Benson later said, “The Alaskans was really expensive to do. We built a stage on one of the stages with snow and huts and so forth; and then, on the back lot, we built a whole street. It was a very expensive show. We never should have done it; it just didn’t catch on.”

Moore, along with several recycled Alaskans scripts, joined the fourth-season production of “Maverick,” where Moore replaced erstwhile star James Garner, who had left the series amid a contract dispute. As that show tumbled in popularity, Moore quit. He would soon find a home playing Simon Templar on “The Saint,” a run that firmly established him as a James Bond candidate.

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Different studios sometimes release movies with similar plots around the same time, whether from groupthink, corporate espionage or just topical necessity. The phenomenon is called twin films, notably including the two asteroid movies of 1998, “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” and the three Pinocchio movies of 2022. In the same way, NBC produced a gold rush show set in Skagway while “The Alaskans” was flailing on ABC. Richard Burton’s “Ice Palace” (1960) and John Wayne’s “North to Alaska” (1960) were playing in theaters around the same time. With statehood, interest in Alaska was peaking across the country.

Klondike lasted on NBC from 1960 to 1961 with just 17 aired episodes. In theory, the show was based on Pierre Breton’s 1958 novel, “The Klondike Fever.” But apart from placenames and some opening stock images, the plots and set design could have been from any formulaic Western. One of the writers, Sam Peckinpah, would go on to a more remarkable career as a director, including the 1969 Western classic “The Wild Bunch.”

Ralph Taeger and James Coburn, who later won an Academy Award for 1997′s “Affliction,” starred as rivals. Coburn was a standout, in as far as the show had any, with one-liners like, “It’s not the principle — it’s the money.” While the show, like “The Alaskans,” failed to draw an audience, the sponsors believed in the chemistry between Taeger and Coburn, in a time when sponsors had a greater influence on creative decisions. So, when the show was canceled, the actors and their characters, with new names and clothing, were relocated to another show, “Acapulco.” However, that show had an even shorter run than Klondike.

While not set in Alaska, “The Second Hundred Years” also deserves a note, given its improbable backstory. The show ran for a single season on ABC from 1967 to 1968. The show was a multigenerational family comedy with a unique setup. Thirty-three-year-old Luke Carpenter ventured to Alaska in 1900 as part of the Fairbanks gold rush where he was frozen in a glacier — around Fairbanks mind you — until thawed out alive and well in 1967. By then, his son was 67 with a 33-year-old son of his own. From there, hijinks naturally ensue.

In 1974, ABC canceled “The Brady Bunch” and filled the timeslot with “Kodiak.” Clint Walker, best known for his leading role in “Cheyenne” (1955-1963), played lawman Cal “Kodiak” McKay. As presented in the show, Kodiak McKay is a member of the Alaska State Patrol, a unit that does not exist. Before filming, the producers approached the Alaska State Troopers for permission to use the name, which the Department of Public Safety rejected. Among several concerns, DPS officials did not approve of McKay wearing a parka and jeans instead of a uniform while working. Commissioner of Public Safety James “Pat” Wellington told the Anchorage Daily News in 1974, “The control we asked for was stricter than they wanted, so they changed the name to state patrol.”

Principal photography occurred around Bend, Oregon, though some limited second-unit footage was shot in Alaska. Abner Biberman, a Jewish man, played Abraham Lincoln Imhook, Kodiak’s Alaska Native sidekick. And that is about all the discussion needed on the show’s authenticity.

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In a brief and thoroughly scathing review, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Walker’s frozen method of acting effectively complements the setting. The result is about as interesting as watching a large block of polluted ice.” In the same review, O’Connor was far more receptive to “Planet of Apes” based on the 1968 film of the same name and its sequels, which illustrates the state of television in 1974. “Kodiak” was canceled after its first episode, though another three aired, and evidence suggests that another nine beyond that were filmed. One Kodiak episode did feature what was billed as a “desperate snowmobile chase,” an aspect sadly lacking in almost every other show ever.

As of this writing, none of these shows are legally available to stream, and only “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” has had a home media release. Only bits and pieces of “The Alaskans,” “Klondike,” and “Kodiak” survive online, on sites like YouTube.

Each of these shows received little to no attention in Alaska, appropriate since they were not really meant for Alaskans. Non-Alaskans created these shows for a non-Alaskan audience. In that way, and despite almost any historical accuracy, they do measure something real: how people perceived Alaska and Alaskans. For example, if a TV show places an Anchorage Assembly meeting in a log cabin, it matters less that it is wrong than that it reflects what people outside Alaska think life in Alaska is like.

The Alaska dream is of a non-animated show that is not only set in Alaska but shot here as well. Imagine a prestige — and admittedly well-financed — production taking advantage of the landscape variety, the ability to quickly transition from glacier to rainforest to urban environments. Yet, Hollywood has remained stingy and aloof regarding Alaska.

Key sources:

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Coburn, Robyn L. Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn. Omaha, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.

Donovan, Paul. Roger Moore. London: W. H. Allen, 1983.

Jackson, Ronald. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. New York: Citadel Press, 1994.

Jones, Sally W. “Kodiak—ABC Discovers Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News, August 30, 1974,

Moore, Roger, and Ken Roche. The Roger Moore Story: TV Times Extra. London: Independent Publications, Ltd., 1972.

O’Connor, John J. “TV: ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Kodiak’ and ‘Chico and the Man’ Bow.” New York Times, September 13, 1974, 73.

Woolley, Lynn, Robert W. Malsbary, and Robert G. Strange. Warner Bros. Television: Every Show of the Fifties and Sixties, Episode by Episode. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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