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Father Murphy


NBC Network
1981 - 1984
60 Minutes

Set in the Dakota Territory of the 1870s, this western drama starred Merlin Olsen as John Michael Murphy, a bearded frontiersman who impersonated a priest to keep a group of gold miner's orphans from being handed over to the not-so-caring local county officials Mr. Rodman (Charles Tyner) and Miss Tuttle (Ivy Bethune. They wanted to put the children in a territorial workhouse in Claymore.

John carried out his scam with the assistance of black friend, Moses Gage (Moses Gunn), a prospector and Mae Woodward (Katherine Cannon), a young teacher.

They all lived in an area called Gold Hill, named for the Gold Hill Mine, formerly owned by Philbert Potts (Steve Levitt), an odd fellow who talks to the ghost of his dead mother. 

John Murphy, Moses, Will and Mae

Rodman and Tuttle, the county officials were constantly  trying to get the children from Father Murphy's care. Rodman even stooped so low as to have his own son Archibald, (Jason Tomarken)  infiltrate the orphanage and get some dirt on Father Murphy. But that plan failed when the boy felt so loved by Father Murphy and the children that he refused to tell his father a secret he had learn, namely that Father Murphy was indeed an imposter.

When John's deception was finally exposed, however, he married Mae and adopted all the children to keep them together. John's true identity was revealed by Emma (Donna Wilkes), a teenager who fell in love with John and when rejected, ran to Rodman and spilled the beans on John's cover up.

The Children of Gold Hill School

Other folks in John Murphy's life included:

  • Richard Bergman as Father Joe Parker, a handsome but bumbling priest who occasionally assisted John Murphy at the Gold Hill School orphanage.
  • Timothy Gibbs as Will Adams, an orphan who warned John and Moses they were going to be robbed. In appreciation, they hired Will as their cook and later adopted him along with a bunch of other recently orphaned children.
  • Byron Thames as Matt Sims, an orphan who fell in love with Elizabeth Garrett.
  • Kirk Brennan as David Sims, Matt's older brother.
  • Amanda Peterson as Elizabeth Garrett, the daughter of the town's ruthless businessman, Richard Garrett.
  • Lisa Trusel as Lizette Winkler, an orphan, apprentice seamstress and Will's girlfriend.
  • Scott Mellini as Ephram Winkler, Lizette's brother.
  • Jenny Beck as Henrietta, an orphan.
  • Bob G. Anthony as Griffith, the storekeeper in Jackson.
  • Warren Munson as Dr. Thompson, the town physician.
  • Charles Cooper as Sheriff, the local lawman
  • Chez Lister as Eli Matthews, a streetwise black orphan that John and Mae adopted while on their honeymoon after the boy's grandfather dies.
  • Christopher Stone as the famed author Samuel Clemens (aka "Mark Twain") who set up a newspaper in the nearby town of Jackson to battle the influences of Richard Garrett, (Burr DeBenning), an evil businessman. Orphans Will and Ephram were hired as copyboys/reporters and became the  inspiration for Twain's characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Will and Ephram were seen white washing a fence and rafting on a river).
  • Mine the dog, John's pet

John Murphy with two of his boys

Initially, John Murphy arrived in Gold Hill on a cartload of supplies slated for the Dakota Territory. But it was only after Paul Garrett (Burr DeBenning), a greedy town baron (Richard Garrett's twin brother) hired bandits to gain control of all the local gold fields, did John decide to stay behind and tend to all the children orphaned by the onslaught of killings caused during a mine strike. Sadly, the local priest was also killed in the raid and so John assumed his identity as a holy man.

As time passed, more children sent to John Murphy, including a mentally challenged girl who turns out to be good with horses. She tamed a wild horse, rode in the territorial fair and won a purse of $1000 for Father Murphy to use for the orphan's care.

Another child was brought to the orphanage by his mother because her husband physically abused him. When the boy's father tried to get the boy back, the powerful John Murphy accidentally killed the man while trying to restrain him.

More adventures of John Murphy and company included:

  • A pregnant suicidal teenager
  • An embarrassed bed-wetter (David)
  • An orphan boy who worships his father's gun fighting life.
  • Stolen Fourth of July fireworks rescued from a saloon safe.
  • A dying Mountain man delivers a boy to the John's care. The "he" turns out to be "she." Later, her allergy to strawberries saves the day when the warden of the workhouse fears all the kids have smallpox and releases them.
  • An old man who goes back to school.
  • A fleeing female bank robber who poses as a nun.
  • The kids saving Laddie the horse from the slaughterhouse.
  • A drunken father forces his son to tell the location of an alleged gold mine after the boy finds a lone nugget.
  • A former Confederate army bugle boy who seeks refuge at the orphanage but finds it hard to treat Moses as an equal.
  • A withdrawn blind girl comes alive when Moses introduces her to the piano. 
  • A young orphaned heir is kidnapped to keep him from claiming his rightful inheritance.
  • Will runs off to St Louis when he finds out a new room is not for him but for the Murphy's expected baby.
  • A story telling old timer falsely claims that John and Moses are bank robbers (Grizzly and Whisper Man) then the real one shows up in town.
  • Matt witnesses a robbery but is reluctant to tell the sheriff because one of them is his friend who has a sick mother.
  • Eli, Matt and Ephram procure a mail-order-bride for Moses.


TRIVIA NOTE: Merlin Olsen was a former defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams NFL football team. Olsen played Jonathan Garvey, a farmer on THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (1977-81); and Aaron Miller, an Amish man from Pennsylvania who relocated his family to California on the short-lived drama AARON'S WAY(1988).

In 1974, Moses Gunn  played a black cook/ranch foreman on the TV western THE COWBOYS, who helped a widow raise a bunch of homeless boys.

Produced by Michael Landon, FATHER MURPHY was filmed in Hollywood and at the Old Tucson Studios and theme park near Tucson, Arizona.

Obituaries: Moses Gunn: 12/16/1993

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