The Apple Dumpling Gang is a 1975 American comedy-western film produced by Walt Disney Productions about a slick gambler named Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) who is duped into taking care of a group of orphans who eventually strike gold during the California Gold Rush.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Jack Bickham. Don Tait, who wrote several other hits for Disney such as Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), wrote the screenplay. The so-called "Apple Dumpling Gang" are named after their favorite American dessert treat, the apple dumpling. Paul J. Smith and Buddy Baker composed the music for it and its 1979 sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. The song "The Apple Dumpling Gang", as heard in the opening and closing credits, was composed by Shane Tatum and was sung/performed by Randy Sparks and The Back Porch Majority.
Tagline: Wanted: For chicanery, skulduggery, tomfoolery and habitual bungling!
Set during the California Gold Rush, a slick gambler named Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) arrives to town and finds himself duped into taking care of a trio of orphans with the town's sheriff, barber, Justice of the Peace, and judge Homer McCoy (Harry Morgan) telling him that he is legally obligated unless he can have someone else take custody of the children. By chance, the Bradley children end up finding gold with everyone in the town attempting to adopt the children from Donovan. Fearing they would not have the children's interests at heart, he arranged a marriage with the stagecoach driver Magnolia Dusty Clydesdale (Susan Clark) so they can keep custody of the Bradley children. However, things become complicated when their legal guardian returns. At the same time, a pair of bumbling holdup men named Amos Tucker (Tim Conway) and Theodore Ogelvie (Don Knotts) attempt to steal the Bradleys' gold before their former boss Frank Stillwell (Slim Pickens) kidnap the children while stealing the gold. But it ends with the gold nugget blown to bits, Stillwell arrested, and Donovan and Dusty keeping the Bradley children as they use the reward money for Stillwell's arrest to buy a farm and on their way a reformed Amos and Theodore catches up with the newfound family asking for work as farmhands, much to the dismay of Dusty's father, Col. T.R. Clydesdale (David Wayne).
The film was a hit at the box office and was the most successful Disney film of the 1970s - earned $13.5 million in theatrical rentals - but gained mixed reviews from the critics. In October 1980, it became one of the first Disney movies to be released on videocassette. It is also known as being the first film to feature the comedy duo of Don Knotts and Tim Conway. Knotts and Conway developed different styles of pulling off their comedy; Conway's characters were usually the dumber of the two, which made Knotts usually the brains of the group, though they were both equally inept. Both The Apple Dumpling Gang and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, have been released on Disney DVD in the United States. In the United Kingdom, only the original film has been made available on DVD.
In 1979, Knotts and Conway reprised their roles in the unsuccessful sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Bill Bixby, Susan Clark, and the rest of the cast did not appear. Harry Morgan was the only other member of the cast to appear in the sequel, although he plays a different character. Without the presence of Bill Bixby, Susan Clark, and the three orphans, the film was not a success. Knotts and Conway would team up for two more films together (both independent films co-written by Conway), The Prize Fighter in 1979, and The Private Eyes. They were also in Gus released in 1976, even though they did not share any scenes together; instead, Tom Bosley was Conway's foil in that film. Conway and Knotts would also appear together briefly as a pair of inept highway patrolmen in 1984's Cannonball Run II.
In January 1982, Disney aired Tales of the Apple Dumpling Gang, a television film remake starring John Bennett Perry in the Bixby role, Ed Begley Jr. in the Conway role and Arte Johnson in the Knotts role. One year later saw the premiere of a television series, Gun Shy, with a completely different cast, including Barry Van Dyke in the Bixby role. Six episodes were produced.