The actress in the Wanted Dead or Alive premiere was meant to be Laura Petrie

By: H&I Staff     Posted: June 15, 2021, 8:40AM

The history of television is littered with casting "What If's?" What if Micky Dolenz of the Monkees had been cast as the Fonz? What if Raquel Welch had washed up on Gilligan's Island as Mary Ann?

Here's another one with a less familiar name, but it might have swayed the course of TV more than the others. Jennifer Lea was the first actress marked to play the role of Laura Petrie. 

The November 22, 1958, issue of TV Guide featured Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the cover. A small production news item inside mentioned that Jennifer Lea had been tapped to play Laura Petrie, Carl Reiner's wife in an upcoming sitcom titled Man of the House. The character Laura Petrie will be familiar to any classic television fan — the role turned young Mary Tyler Moore into a household name. What would have become of Mary Tyler Moore had she not won that role?

Of course, a lot changed about "Man of the House" before it premiered three years later as The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner penned the semi-autobiographical pilot script about a TV writer named Rob Petrie, a role that he intended to play. The network hoped to cast a more popular comedian in the lead.

Nevertheless, in 1960, a pilot was made starring Reiner as "Robbie Petrie" — only it was now called Head of the Family. Oh, and Barbara Britton was playing his wife, Laura. Somewhere along the way, Lea lost the job.

Landon and Adams in ''The Martin Poster''

But Lea can be found at the start of another popular classic. The Wanted: Dead or Alive premiere, "The Martin Poster," a spin-off from Trackdown that gave Steve McQueen's bounty hunter Josh Randall the spotlight, offered a bounty of famous Western faces. Michael Landon guest-starred as one of the wanted Martin boys. The episode aired one year before he made his debut as Little Joe on Bonanza. By his side as the other Martin brother was Nick Adams, best known as Johnny Yuma of The Rebel. Beloved character actor Dabbs Greer rounds out the stellar cast.

Lea turns up as Louise Martin, who ends up assisting our hero Josh Randall in collecting his bounty. She also gathers some eggs from the chickens in a barn, where the final showdown takes place.

The Oklahoma-born actress did not have too many other roles. Her near-miss on Man of the House ended up being a major turning point for her career. She can be found in The Rifleman, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Have Gun - Will Travel. However, following a couple of guest spots on Family Affair, she vanished from the screen.

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