TV Westerns Strike Gold In ’50s And ’60s.
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine
Maybe it was coincidence, or more likely a sign of the times, that the hit song “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” was first released mere months after Gunsmoke hung up its spurs after 20 years in 1975, a declaration that the age of the classic TV Western was over.
But TV sang a far different tune in its earliest days, looking to America’s, and Hollywood’s, fabled past to churn out horse operas with the efficiency and frequency of tumbleweeds. At the genre’s peak, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you couldn’t turn the dial (this was before those newfangled remotes) without being plunged into a world of stagecoaches and saloons, where you could always tell the white from the black hats. By the 1958-59 season, when a record 31 Westerns dominated primetime, they topped the ratings with a majority of the top-10 shows — the way Dick Wolf’s crime dramas do today.
Shows like the aforementioned Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun — Will Travel, The Rifleman, the comedic Maverick and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Soon, Bonanza would join their ranks, the first to be shown “in living color,” propelling this yarn about a Nevada ranching family into the No. 1 spot in the mid ’60s.
It all began quite modestly, with children as the primary target audience, when B-picture star William Boyd licensed edited versions of his simplistic Hopalong Cassidy movies from the 1930s and 1940s to local stations, eventually making new episodes to satisfy demand. Shows like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid quickly followed, and kids couldn’t get enough of the bang-bang action.
Grownups craved their own versions of these timeless morality tales, and after movies like High Noon and Shane achieved success and acclaim on the big screen, TV’s “adult Western” was born. Emphasizing character over mindless shoot-’em-ups, this trend was best illustrated by the two series that ran the longest: Gunsmoke (1955-75) and Bonanza (1959-73).
“We try to capture some of the real feeling of the West, as well as something real in the people,” explained Gunsmoke‘s cocreator Norman Macdonnell. Bonanza creator David Dortort, whose series was inspired by the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada, boasted, “Ours is not the phony West, not one of those preposterous fables, but the West as it actually happened.” Claims of realism aside, what mattered most was that they were really, truly successful.
No less a Western icon than John Wayne introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke. Legend has it that he had been offered the role of Dodge City’s stoic Marshal Matt Dillon before he suggested to CBS that his lesser-known friend, the towering James Arness, take the part. And so a new star was born.
He wouldn’t be alone. Westerns were a lucrative launching pad for up-and-coming actors, some of whom graduated to big box office movie stardom. Steve McQueen first became a household name as bounty hunter Josh Randall on Wanted: Dead or Alive. Clint Eastwood found early fame as cattle drover Rowdy Yates on Rawhide. Burt Reynolds joined the cast of Gunsmoke for three seasons as half-Native blacksmith Quint Asper, jump-starting his then-faltering career.
Sometimes it worked the other way. After a glittery career as a movie star (Double Indemnity, Stella Dallas), Miss Barbara Stanwyck — that was her billing — found a new audience in the 1960s as The Big Valley‘s whip-wielding ranching matriarch Victoria Barkley. Her gene pool was rather impressive, with offspring including future Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors (as Heath) and Dynasty fashion plate Linda Evans (as Audra).
For a time, if you wanted to make it in Hollywood, you’d better be willing to saddle up. “Any actor or extra who wants to make a living learns how to ride a horse,” producer Armand Schaefer, president of Gene Autry’s company, told TV Guide Magazine in 1958. “If he’s lucky, the lightning will strike.” A casting director added, “The riding stables around town are full of city-born actors learning how to ride horses, and Hollywood’s professional gun coaches are suddenly finding themselves in the position of being professors.”
The education paid off for a new generation of TV stars: James Garner as the sly Maverick, Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, James Drury and Doug McClure in The Virginian, Clint Walker in Cheyenne (TV’s first hourlong Western) and many more. But none had the staying power of Bonanza‘s breakout star Michael Landon as Little Joe, the youngest of widower Ben Cartwright’s (Lorne Greene) three sons.
Initially and charmingly described by TV Guide Magazine as “a sort of Kookie in chaps” (referring to 66 Sunset Strip‘s teen idol Edd Byrnes), Landon grew up on the Bonanza set, hired at 22 with his biggest previous credit in the title role of I Was a Teenage Werewolf. During his first season, he reportedly had to wear a heavy sweatshirt under his costume to bulk out his chest and shoulders. Eventually, “the kid” began writing scripts and directing, earning everyone’s respect.
“Mike used to be the kid who lost his temper. Now, when guest stars get temperamental, Mike’s the man who calms them down,” Bonanza boss Dortort recalled in 1969. Landon’s learning curve served him well. A year after Bonanza ended (ratings dove precipitously following the unexpected death of costar Dan Blocker, who played big brother Hoss), Landon moved on to become a frontier father figure on the beloved family drama Little House on the Prairie (1974-83), where he not only starred as pioneering Pa Ingalls but also served as executive producer and frequent writer and director.
Little House outlived the traditional TV Western, which fell victim to changing audience tastes and an industry crackdown on violence, with congressional hearings in the 1960s urging the networks to tone things down, essentially taming the once-wild West. Ironically, the show that triggered the deluge of mainstream Westerns was the last to depart.
Gunsmoke was nearly canceled before the 1967-68 season because of falling ratings, but CBS Chairman William S. Paley intervened, and when the show moved from Saturdays to an earlier time period on Mondays, a new and younger audience discovered the show, catapulting it back into the Top 10. (Its record as TV’s longest-running drama was recently surpassed by Law & Order: SVU, which still has a long way to go to match Gunsmoke‘s 635-episode output.)
Gunsmoke‘s early champion, John Wayne, wasn’t surprised by the show’s renaissance. “[Westerns] always get back on top of the heap,” he said. “They represent our folklore. They are understood by the greatest number of people.”
But with few exceptions, like 1989’s tremendous miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove and the 1990s hit Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Westerns have mostly remained resistant to a TV comeback. Series like HBO’s profane Deadwood and AMC’s violent Hell on Wheels have emphasized the darker nature of the frontier spirit.
While we may never see the bustling bonanza of Westerns on TV again, they remain a vibrant part of our shared cultural history. As my grandmother, who was addicted to the shows, used to remark, “I just love watching those horses.”