Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Classic TV Westerns.
In 1949 the television Western was born. In 1959 it dominated the airwaves. And in 1969, it slouched in its saddle off toward the sunset. In the long view there has always been a Western—or at least a lookalike—on the air, but Gunsmoke’s cancellation in 1975 was a closing of the frontier. In the four decades since, television has grown up. At least that’s what they say. But in 1955, Marshal Matt Dillon stumbled upon the hanged bodies of two would-be (but not quite) murderous ne’er-do-wells, done in by Matt’s friends and neighbors the night before. Matt doesn’t know what to do about this vigilante justice. He can’t very well arrest the whole town. Instead, our black-and-white ’50s hero washes his hands of the dilemma and walks away, leaving justice undone. Television didn’t grow up all at once.
In fact, many roots of modern television run back to the classic Western, a formative influence on David Milch and Vince Gilligan, a training ground for Gene Roddenberry and Frank Pierson, moral grist for Rod Serling and Sam Peckinpah. The Western is often dismissed as good guys versus bad guys, patriarchal lessons for the Eisenhower family, a landscape of men swinging their guns around with no acknowledgment of women or minorities. That’s true in parts. But the horizon is vast. The Western isn’t just the story of the sheriff keeping the peace. It’s about cowboys riding from town to town on a season-long drive, women pioneers settling the frontier in vignettes, and a Native American U.S. Marshal. It’s a cop show, a historical adventure, a small town dramedy, a legal procedural, a spy-fi hybrid, and sometimes an art drama without the prestige. It’s an overwhelming bounty, not least because so many hits and sidekicks are available on DVD. But no need to dig. The perfect introduction is sitting right there on top.
Classic TV Westerns 101: The legends
1959 was the year the Western broke. On the big screen John Wayne roused his friends in defense of Rio Bravo, and on the small screen network schedules were clogged with more than 30 Westerns. The rise over the ’50s had been steady, and the sudden drop-off in the ’60s was just around the corner. Coming off Gunsmoke’s win for Best Dramatic Series in 1958, the Emmys created a new category for Best Western. America couldn’t get enough. Seven of the top 10 series of the 1958-59 season were Westerns, including the top four: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, and The Rifleman.
CBS’ Gunsmoke was in the middle of a four-year reign as television’s most watched program in 1959. Begun as a radio show and slightly reimagined for television, creators Norman Macdonnell and John Meston envisioned Gunsmoke as an adult Western, a realistic corrective to consequence-free children’s shows like The Lone Ranger. It’s the story of Dodge City, Kansas, at the time considered the Gomorrah of the West, a frontier hub that attracted all manner of unsavory sorts. The only thing standing between chaos and civilization was Marshal Matt Dillon, played by James Arness. The series was more plainspoken than that, but it was always reaching for elemental drama. Set in a single location, Gunsmoke was unusually populated for those days, with a supporting cast of three (eventually four) Dodgers: Amanda Blake’s passionate saloon girl Kitty, Milburn Stone’s ornery Doc Adams, and Dennis Weaver’s dim Deputy Chester, later replaced by Ken Curtis’ hayseed Festus. After the series added a fifth regular, Burt Reynolds played a half-Native American blacksmith for a spell.
Running for 635 episodes over 20 years, Gunsmoke is a monolith. It’s the center of the television Western canon, the massive body around which all else orbits. In 1955 it debuted as a straight-shooting half-hour black-and-white adventure tracking mud everywhere. In 1975 it bowed out as an hour-long color social issues drama. A three-episode survey might be Sam Peckinpah’s “Poor Pearl,” which ends with a man stewing in his own moral filth; “Seven Hours To Dawn,” an exciting action piece with the town held hostage; and “The Good Samaritans,” which has Brock Peters and Rex Ingram playing ex-slaves debating whether or not to help a wounded Matt. Through it all runs a preoccupation with violence: law and order, revenge, the Civil War, the plight of the Native American, scars physical and psychological. To Meston, Dodge was an arena for gladiators unleashed in the Civil War. Indeed, violence is what the Western is all about, from The Lone Ranger’s heroics to Deadwood’s brutality. Strip it down to its component parts and the Western is a man with a gun somewhere between the state of nature and government. No Western understands that so thoroughly as Gunsmoke.
Wagon Train makes Gunsmoke look like Deadwood. Based on John Ford’s masterful melting pot Wagon Master, NBC’s Wagon Train is a 1957 semi-anthology series about a wagon train crew leading all kinds of settlers west through the wilderness. Each hour-long episode is one guest actor’s moral tale, the West a crucible testing the fiber of its people. Gunsmoke may have a traditional façade, but Wagon Train is square to the bone with its corny comedy and “do the right thing” drama, preaching good, old-fashioned values like personal responsibility, obedience, and honor in certain kinds of violence. “Sometimes, in spite of how a man tries to stay out of a fight, he ends up with crossed swords,” Major Adams patiently explains in a static close-up, the better to soak up the wisdom. Where Matt Dillon hardens with every bullet, Adams is untroubled. All of Wagon Train is contained in his grandfatherly smile. Played by John Ford regular Ward Bond, Adams led the wagon train for the first half of the series until Bond’s death, when Anthony Mann regular John McIntire took over. The show was designed around the guest stars anyway. Ernest Borgnine, fresh off an Oscar win for Marty, anchors the pilot as a drunk tested by battle. Executive producer Richard Lewis was as proud of the acting talents Wagon Train wrangled—like Sessue Hayakawa and Bette Davis—as of the writers he brought aboard, like E. Jack Neuman and Aaron Spelling (who would go on to co-create The Guns Of Will Sonnett starring Walter Brennan). When the show hit number one in 1962, ABC outbid NBC and the series jumped ship. But even with a season of 90-minute color episodes, Wagon Train never regained its ratings, and it rolled to a stop in 1965.
From 1958 to 1961, the top three shows in the country, in this order, were Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun – Will Travel. Unlike the other two, Have Gun’s vision of the West was mythic. Where Gunsmoke is stuck to its hub and Wagon Train is stuck to its formula, Have Gun travels all over the country, getting tangled up in land disputes, murder mysteries, camel races—you name it. The Old West was an epic poem, and here was its knight-errant. For six seasons of romantic black-and-white half hours shot in all kinds of country, Emmy-nominated Richard Boone played Paladin, a private detective/bounty hunter with equal parts brains and grit who operates out of a ritzy hotel in San Francisco. The series was named for the text of his business card. He’s packing, and he’ll be there soon. Most heroes of the adult Western aim to solve problems without violence, but few were as intellectual as Paladin. Push often comes to shove on Have Gun – Will Travel, and Paladin’s as good a shot as any other hero, but there were times, like Gene Roddenberry’s “The Hanging Cross,” when the show’s peace prevails.
Sam Peckinpah had a wearier vision of the Old West. After honing his craft on some of Gunsmoke’s steeliest scripts, Peckinpah wrote a pilot about a marksman bullied into throwing a shooting contest and then leaving town in shame. Producing team Jules V. Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven balanced Peckinpah’s pessimism with a more commercial approach, and they successfully sold The Rifleman. A version of that story with a happy ending aired first as an episode of anthology series Zane Grey Theatre and then as the first episode of ABC’s 1958 series about Chuck Connors’ upright rancher Lucas McCain trying to raise his son in the West. Peckinpah’s stamp is all over the first season with its focus on masculinity and subversive cynicism, but he would soon leave over creative differences. In his absence The Rifleman would become more wholesome, as much a paternal ’50s sitcom as a rip-roaring Western, but no less savage and beautiful. Even in spring of 1963, when the show finally dropped out of the Nielsen Top 30 and was canceled, B-movie stylist and The Rifleman’s secret weapon Joseph H. Lewis was churning out action spectaculars replete with splash-page composition and newsprint chiaroscuro.
Not simply the most popular programs in America, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, and The Rifleman were also nominated for Best Western that year. Together they read like a syllabus. Two are black-and-white half-hours and two are mostly hour-longs with seasons in color. Two are stationary semi-serials, and two are nomadic semi-anthologies, and they cover all three networks. Their heroes can be plotted on a spectrum of very relative compromise: a righteous wagon master, a stalwart rancher, a clenched town sheriff, and a freer radical. But all four were beaten for the Emmy by the fifth-highest rated Western (in the number six position behind The Danny Thomas Show), Roy Huggins’ sly, slick Maverick.
Roy Huggins, writer of Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, was fresh off a year on Warner Western Cheyenne, but the unfailing virtue of the hero was driving him crazy. So he set out to write a series about “a hero with humor, who gambled for a living, who was not concerned with the troubles of others, and who was, in fact, a kind of ‘gentle grafter.’” Huggins made a Western about an antihero. Maverick began in 1957 with James Garner playing gambler Bret Maverick, a more self-interested Western hero than the others and a prototype for his ’70s P.I., Jim Rockford. He drifted from saloon to riverboat looking for a score until trouble found him. Often he’d encounter some swindler and embark on an episode-long plan to get his money back, but other times he’d reluctantly come to help a woman who catches his eye or an underdog in town so long as there was something in it for him. Maverick was a side-eye take on the Western, with capers, adventures, and even outright parodies rather than stern moral tales, but Bret was ultimately as dependable as Lucas McCain. Even before Budd Boetticher shot the pilot, Warner planned to set up a second unit with another actor to minimize the danger of falling behind schedule. So Jack Kelly came in as Bret’s brother Bart, and from episode eight on, the Maverick brothers would alternate episodes and occasionally team up. In one of the more memorable outings, “Shady Deal At Sunny Acres,” five different recurring characters join the Maverick brothers in a heist to get Bret’s money back while he just sits on his porch whittling, sure that his money will return. In one of the contract disputes that plagued the Warner Westerns, Garner left the series after its third season, so Roger Moore came on as cousin Beau, only lasting a year out of unhappiness with his scripts. For the final shortened season, Bart was the solo lead, but by 1962, the Western was already falling out of fashion, and Maverick was canceled.
Intermediate Studies: The open range
Before Gunsmoke and company blazed a trail for the adult Western, the genre was for kids. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Western was escapist entertainment, all half-hour black-and-white adventures about good guys and bad guys. Lone Pine was as exotic as the West could look. Everything else was shot within 50 miles of Hollywood. The white hat would triumph over the black hat and then sing a song. He had a broad comic sidekick and his horse had a name. He was always in danger but never really. He was bowling with bumpers. The West in those days was easier. Naming his horse was never a very high priority for Paladin.
The originals are NBC’s Hopalong Cassidy and ABC’s The Lone Ranger, both from 1949. Hopalong Cassidy was a B-picture hero debuting on television in 1948 in the form of heavily edited movies. Cassidy was bigger than ever on the small screen, and NBC began airing an original series (also partly comprised of theatrical releases) in June of 1949 with William Boyd’s middle-aged Hoppy and his sidekick, grizzled old Red Connors. That September, The Lone Ranger began with a three-part movie patterned after ’30s adventure serials wherein the titular, fresh-faced ex-Texas Ranger and his Native American sidekick, Tonto, would find themselves in cliffhanger endings. Hopalong Cassidy burned hot and fast, but The Lone Ranger lasted for more than 200 episodes over eight years, including a season in color. It’s the Gunsmoke of the early Westerns, the key that fits all the other locks.
A stampede followed. In 1950, The Cisco Kid would bring the format down South with the adventures of the title caballero, “O. Henry’s famous Robin Hood of the Old West,” and his cartoonish sidekick, Pancho. Sold into syndication, Cisco stands out for being shot in color even though it aired in black and white. CBS’ only notable Western in the early ’50s, The Gene Autry Show, distinguished itself with its singing cowboy. Autry and pal Pat were malleable heroes, slotting into whatever occupations the stories required, but they were always reliable for a song or two. NBC’s The Roy Rogers Show was just as adventurous, but set in one location, which allowed it to have more regulars, like Rogers’ wife Dale Evans as a restaurateur and Harry Harvey Sr. as the town sheriff. The series was also gleefully anachronistic, with telephones and cars when need be. When producers started mining historical figures for kiddie Westerns (like The Adventures Of Wild Bill Hickok and The Adventures Of Kit Carson), Autry produced the first Western centered on a woman, Gail Davis’ tough, playful, pig-tailed markswoman, Annie Oakley. Annie wasn’t a rodeo performer in the show but rather a sort of peace officer. Each week she’d prove herself with her gun and then right the wrongs of the world, often with her baby brother Tagg and the town Deputy Lofty, who was a love interest on the back burner like a male Miss Kitty.
In the fall of 1955, audiences tuned in to see radio hero Matt Dillon in the flesh. He was shot down halfway through the premiere of Gunsmoke on CBS, and the adult Western was born. There were Westerns not aimed at kids before 1955, but that was the year the dam broke. NBC offered a short-lived anthology series called Frontier. And ABC introduced future Top-30 regular, The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp. Hugh O’Brian played the legendary lawman and embodied the show: handsome, dependable, and humorless, even when smiling. The show had strong action and some nice episodes, but it claims to be history and reads like a textbook. From its acting to its sets, it was simpler than Gunsmoke in every respect but one: Earp was serialized. The on-going story was light, but Wyatt spent the first season mostly in Wichita, the next three as marshal of Dodge, and the last two in Tombstone, with the final two episodes dealing with the shootout between the Earps and the Clanton gang. By the end, Wyatt was even entangled in a romance with a Clanton girl.
The other original adult Western, Cheyenne, also aired on ABC, and it was the first hour-long Western. In the light of Clint Walker’s Cheyenne Bodie, it’s easier to see Matt Dillon’s rage, Paladin’s intellect, Lucas McCain’s tenderness. Cheyenne Bodie is pure beef, a heroic archetype never fully humanized, but his brand of comic strip adventures has its virtues. Cheyenne is most notable for being the first Western produced by a major studio—in this case Warner Bros. under its first TV executive, William T. Orr. It was Orr who brought on Roy Huggins to try to rework Cheyenne, and after serving his time, Huggins went on to write two 1957 pilots for Warner: Maverick and Colt .45. The latter was about a marshal undercover as a gun salesman with an obvious favorite. Where the kid Westerns had special horses, adult Westerns had special guns: Wyatt Earp’s buntline special, The Rifleman’s Winchester 1892, Yancy Derringer’s fancy derringer. Meanwhile the flagship was in trouble when Clint Walker left over a contract dispute. So Warner brought on a replacement hero, Ty Hardin’s livelier Bronco Layne. When Walker came back in 1958, Orr hit a successful three-show rotation that lasted for three years: Cheyenne, spinoff Bronco, and Sugarfoot. Sugarfoot was the first of the wheel to go, but its offbeat flavor—a law student drifting through the West trying to solve problems without a gun—makes it the most interesting. Where Orr’s other Westerns are Maverick-style drifters, 1958’s Lawman was in the mold of Gunsmoke, about the marshal of Laramie, Wyoming. Sugarfoot and Cheyenne both fell out of the Top 30 around the turn of the decade, leaving Lawman not just Warner’s, but ABC’s, highest-rated Western in 1961. The last of Orr’s Westerns, 1959’s The Alaskans, was timed to the admission of Alaska as the 49th state that January, but a writer’s strike suffocated it. Star Roger Moore stayed in the family by going on to play Beau Maverick, but characters from Orr’s Westerns also had a habit of popping up on each other’s shows. The Alaskans was the first to go in 1960, but the Western craze was dying anyway. Cheyenne was the first and outlasted the others, but the Warner Westerns were over by 1963, just eight years after they began.
NBC had a similar relationship with the studio behind Wagon Train, Revue Productions, which was the television arm of Universal. In addition to Wagon Train, Revue had supplied two other Western hits, The Restless Gun and Tales Of Wells Fargo. Both out-rated Wagon Train at first. Developed by David Dortort, The Restless Gun was about a problem-solving drifter with a reluctant but competent trigger finger. Tales Of Wells Fargo had a higher concept in its company troubleshooter securing safe, long-distance journeys. There were other shows like it (Pony Express, Stagecoach West starring Wayne Rogers, Stories Of The Century about a railroad detective), but none performed as well as Tales, which ran for five seasons. Revue later brought NBC The Deputy, created by Norman Lear and Roland Kibbee. It starred Henry Fonda and Allen Case, trading leads like Maverick. Unfortunately, Revue is better at manufacturing trivia than actual Westerns. Warner outpaced it in the popcorn department and its middlebrow cheese can’t compete with the best of the adult Westerns. The studio was great at commercial hits like Wagon Train, but its creative hits wouldn’t come until the turn of the decade.
In 1959 CBS had its own Wagon Train in the form of Rawhide, developed by straight-shooting director Charles Marquis Warren, who had previously developed Gunsmoke. If Wagon Train took after John Ford, Rawhide took after Howard Hawks. Instead of moral tales about honor and history, Rawhide presents a rugged portrait of camaraderie and labor. Its heroes are human with little flaws and smiles. Clint Eastwood is the big discovery, but Eric Fleming’s trail boss makes a smart counterpoint to unfailing Major Adams. (In fact Fleming was initially offered the lead role in A Fistful Of Dollars. When he said no, producers didn’t have to look very far.) Rawhide’s drama is muscular and its images classically complicated. It’s more concerned with work than guns, and its stories bite into a piece of meat and don’t let go until the taste’s gone. Because it’s set outdoors and on the move, not only does it have the genre’s most sumptuous black-and-white nature photography, but it’s the Western that best captures the expanse of the American frontier.
There were Paladin imitators, too, most notably 1958’s Wanted: Dead Or Alive on CBS. A young Steve McQueen played bounty hunter Josh Randall like milk to Paladin’s vinegar. His breakout led to his role in The Magnificent Seven and then the end of the series after three seasons. NBC’s Bat Masterson was more explicitly a Have Gun rip-off with its upper-crust detective for hire, but it wasn’t exactly an adult Western. It was like a procedural. There was a formula to the plots, Bat was always good for a quip, and the cases were high society things like art forgery and thrown horse races. It was the original White Collar. The ABC standout is The Rebel, directed primarily by Irvin Kershner and starring Nick Adams as ex-Confederate soldier Johnny Yuma. Unlike Paladin, he has adventure thrust upon him as he drifts through the West in the wake of the Civil War, lending the series an air of penance. Johnny Yuma isn’t trying to save the world out of chivalry. He’s just lost.
Adult Westerns like The Rifleman popped up into the ’60s, but few lasted long. The standouts were a beat up pair from 1965 that didn’t make it past 1966. Rod Serling’s The Loner recalls John Meston’s vision of the West. Each episode opens with a Serling special: “In the aftermath of the blood-letting called The Civil War, thousands of rootless, restless, searching men traveled west.” Lloyd Bridges played the Loner for 26 episodes’ worth of Serling’s beautiful, bitter moral tests. Branded at least made it two seasons. In fact, it was the second-highest rated Western for the 1964-65 season. Chuck Connors played the hero, branded a coward and stripped of his rank in the credits that open each episode. The accusations are false, but he keeps silent to prevent the cavalry from going to war with the Apache. By the mid-’60s, even The Rifleman was compromised. But audiences were in the mood for easier fare.
Advanced studies: Settling down
America started to move on soon after the rush of ’59. What lasted through the ’60s were Westerns that doubled as small town dramas, exemplified by Gunsmoke’s transition from violence to social issues. The West was moving indoors. Rawhide is the notable exception, lasting through the mid-’60s, but its robust cast and continuing relationships quench similar serial thirsts. Bonanza was the pioneer of the ’60s Western, broadcast in color from the beginning in 1959 on NBC. Developed by David Dortort when The Restless Gun ended, Bonanza was a new kind of Western, focused on a family and set on a ranch, like The Rifleman, but with melodrama. In Bonanza, the Cartwright family—Lorne Greene’s patriarch, his three adult children, and no women—own and operate a Lake Tahoe ranch where they discuss issues like gun violence and bigotry. There was never an issue that the Cartwrights couldn’t talk to death. For most of the ’60s, Bonanza was in the top five, finishing the decade in third behind Gunsmoke. But true to its Revue roots, Bonanza is that rare prototype outdone by its imitators.
The best of the ’60s Westerns was Dortort’s follow-up for NBC, The High Chaparral, written by journalist and Hemingway amigo Denne Bart Petitclerc. Also about a family on a lone ranch outside of town, The High Chaparral took the Bonanza formula and tweaked it here and there, transforming the sprawling talkie into a tight little snake. Instead of a woman-less family, Chaparral’s Cannons were a veritable social experiment. Leif Erickson’s patriarch, Big John, is also a widower—his wife is killed in the premiere—but he enters a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a powerful local Mexican rancher, and she and her brother move in. Meanwhile, they’re out in Apache country. Where post-Tonto Native Americans show up regularly in adult Westerns played by guest stars in stories about racism, the Apache are a constant presence in The High Chaparral, neither a sadistic menace nor mere objects for sympathy. Every other episode turns on the Cannons’ failure to understand the Apache or vice versa. Best of all, instead of a soundstage Sierra Nevada, The High Chaparral makes spectacular use of its Tucson location. With its sand-and-saguaro vistas and flying arrow zooms, it looks like no other Western. Its big blue skies pick up where Rawhide left off.
The same year Bonanza began, NBC launched Revue’s Laramie, another Western about men living together on a ranch, this one shot in black and white. Laramie is a combination of Gunsmoke’s grit with Bonanza’s soap, a world of continuous characters and hardscrabble living. The show produced some of the black-and-white Western’s most expressionistic cinematography courtesy of Ray Rennahan, making use of stark lighting, curtain shadows, and negative space galore in episodes like “The Debt,” but its two color seasons were rarely so vivid. When Laramie ended in 1963, co-star Robert Fuller joined the cast of Wagon Train, now on ABC. To fill its slot for NBC, Revue came up with another experiment, TV’s first 90-minute Western, The Virginian, which followed James Drury as a ranch foreman who’d get caught up in a different story each week, from lighter fare about a schoolgirl’s crush to more adventurous stuff like temporary blindness in the wilderness. At a B-movie running time, each episode cost about four times as much as one of Monte Hellman’s contemporaneous Westerns, and few had as much psychological meat, let alone visual personality. But the lavish production gave The Virginian the most realistic look of the ’60s Westerns, and it was a commercial hit that ran for nine seasons and spun off Texas Ranger action-comedy Laredo.
The Big Valley was ABC’s answer to Bonanza in 1965, a story about a ranch family headed by a widow instead of a widower with a daughter in the mix of children. As matriarch Victoria Barkley, Barbara Stanwyck brought a welcome sense of humor to the stern hero role. Written by noir screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides and produced by The Rifleman shepherds Levy-Gardner-Laven, The Big Valley is distinguished by a sense of control. Bonanza is full of mugs with a rainbow color palette, the better to sell RCA color TVs. Everything from the acting to the art direction on The Big Valley is more measured, and it lasted four years. One of The Big Valley’s formative writers, Christopher Knopf, went on to create CBS’ stab at the 90-minute Western (in the wake of NBC’s The Virginian and ABC’s color season of Wagon Train), Cimarron Strip. It was slower, dreamier, and darker than the usual ’60s Westerns, as beautiful as The High Chaparral but in a totally different style. Its West was crawling with dirty characters out for themselves, seemingly unconfined by network notes. It’s one of the best of its time, and it lasted only a season. Lancer followed, more in the Bonanza mold, but it didn’t last long either. CBS wanted a series about the end of the West, but it was the end of the Western. When Gunsmoke ended in 1975, the genre’s transition into family drama was complete with Little House On The Prairie.
Opposite the serials were two notable anthology Westerns, Death Valley Days and Zane Grey Theatre, both black-and-white half-hours. Adapted by Ruth Woodman from her radio show, Death Valley Days is a quaint, quiet show that focused more on hardship than violence, a kind of How The West Was Settled. It told all kinds of frontier stories, but especially stories about women, from transplanted society girls to wayward con women. Death Valley Days debuted in syndication in 1952, predating the adult Westerns of 1955, and lasted for 18 years, making it the second longest-running Western behind Gunsmoke.
Where Death Valley Days would stew, Zane Grey Theatre would boil. The stories had more action, the shots had more drama, the production had more stars. Produced by Dick Powell as part of his Four Star Productions for CBS, Zane Grey Theatre also served as a pilot showcase, spinning off five different Westerns. The Rifleman came first, which in turn spun off Law Of The Plainsman. Bounty hunter blast Trackdown lasted two years, but before it went, it introduced Josh Randall and spun off Wanted: Dead Or Alive. Finally came a one-season Western for each of the networks: Black Saddle for ABC, Johnny Ringo for CBS, and The Westerner for NBC. After Sam Peckinpah left The Rifleman, Dick Powell asked him to write and direct a pilot for Zane Grey Theatre. Peckinpah wanted to show the West how it was, so he came up with The Westerner, the story of a cowboy drifter, not a gunslinger, who wandered the West with his dog just trying to survive. Downtrodden, lonely, and wry, it was the Terriers of its day. Brian Keith played antihero Dave Blassingame with a hangdog charm. Peckinpah produced every episode, and wrote or directed several. The series premiered in 1960 with a story about a man enjoying a prostitute he knew from childhood. The Westerner was rough and weary enough to get rave reviews and unhappy affiliates. It was canceled after 13 episodes.
Miscellany: Beyond the gunslinger
There were other Westerns that weren’t about do-gooders with guns. Outlaws is a sharp, ripped-from-the-historical-headlines series that would dramatize the exploits of a different outlaw each week until the recurring marshals caught the villain. The second season was in color and told from the perspective of the marshals. Following Four Star’s Black Saddle about a gunslinger turned lawyer, William T. Orr oversaw a legal Western with Jeffrey Hunter playing judge Temple Houston. The networks also tried their hands at Westerns about Native Americans. CBS’ one-season Brave Eagle followed a Cheyenne tribe. ABC’s Broken Arrow centered on the relationship between an Indian agent and an Apache chief played by Michael Ansara. Ansara would go on to star as an Apache U.S. Marshal in Four Star’s short-lived Law Of The Plainsman for NBC.
Typically, Westerns are set between the Mississippi and the Pacific between the Civil War and the automobile or so. But there were some Western-style adventures before that time period, like Disney’s Zorro in pre-Mexican War California or Fox’s Daniel Boone. There were also some set later, like 1962 rodeo dramas The Wide Country and Stoney Burke. Four Feather Falls introduced Gerry Anderson’s marionette animation with a kids’ cowboy show. A couple other interesting international Westerns are Canada’s Sergeant Preston Of The Yukon, marked by its early color photography, and Australia’s Whiplash, marked by its sharp black-and-white photography and kangaroos.
While the Western drifted into family drama, it was also popular enough to spawn other hybrids, like The Wild Wild West and William Shatner’s ’70s spy Western, Barbary Coast. McCloud brought a Western-style sheriff to the big city. Most notably there were a handful of Western-flavored sitcoms: cavalry comedy F Troop, cowboy comedy The Rounders, and in 1973, Dusty’s Trail, which was Gilligan’s Island in the Old West, starring Bob Denver.
The ’70s are a Western curiosity shop, with the audience drying up but the networks reluctant to abandon the genre altogether. James Garner and Richard Boone both dipped their toes back in while James Arness was still basking in Dodge. Garner played a sheriff with a motorcycle and a slow trigger finger on Nichols, and Boone played a Paladin-like detective on a 90-minute forensics Western called Hec Ramsey. Sara was a quickly canceled show about a frontier schoolteacher starring Brenda Vaccaro. Together with superproducer Glen A. Larson, Maverick creator Roy Huggins wrote about another pair of swindlers, Alias Smith And Jones, the rare late Western to last three seasons. The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams, about a fugitive who lives in the wilderness, made it two. Finally, David Dortort would close out the ’70s with the story of a family’s westward trek in The Chisholms.
More Westerns followed, but when Gunsmoke and Death Valley Days vanished from broadcast schedules in 1975, the classic TV Western was over. From its lush look to its murky morality, the Western is one of TV’s greatest accomplishments. Those looking for a foundation might want to start with 1959’s big five. Those with more particular tastes should pick a vein and start mining. And for those looking for the best of the best, here are five of the highest peaks covering as much terrain as possible.
1. Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-63)
The Western hero. Richard Boone breathed life into the adult Western with his flesh-and-blood detective. Have Gun – Will Travel roots out the rot in the West with a keen understanding of violence. Co-created by Oscar-nominated writer of The Naked Spur Sam Rolfe, it’s the closest thing to an Anthony Mann TV Western.
2. The Westerner (1960)
The revisionist Western. No show looks at the West as clearly as The Westerner. It’s a shame Dave Blassingame isn’t commercially available, but episodes are out there, including his premiere on Zane Grey Theatre, “Trouble At Tres Cruces.” Alternately, the adult Western is still stinging from the splash of water that was Maverick.
3. Rawhide (1959-66)
The classical Western. The Westerner and Rawhide offer the realest men in the West. But Rawhide sustained its drama over the better part of eight seasons of hour-long episodes. Its expanse is extraordinary.
4. Zane Grey Theatre (1956-61)
The boundless frontier. A covert pick that encompasses The Rifleman, The Westerner, and five other series besides, Zane Grey Theatre is the TV Western’s traveling bard. Whatever the traditional Western could be, it was and it was beautifully in Zane Grey Theatre.
5. The High Chaparral (1967-71)
The late Western. The color era is best represented on DVD by Cimarron Strip, albeit in abbreviated syndicated form, but it’s worth seeking out The High Chaparral for its lush pop art imagery and its serious grappling with the bubbling melting pot of the American West.