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History of the TV Western

By Kevin Fox

The TV Western reigned supreme in the Fifties and Sixties. There were about 120 of them depending on what you consider a Western. Like the post World War II time in which they flourished, you could always tell the good guys from the bad guys. And none of the guns were fully automatic.

In June of 1949, Hopalong Cassidy aired on NBC. William Boyd had created the character of Hopalong Cassidy for “B” movie features and the first episodes were adaptations of those. Later the character of Red Connors was added (Edgar Buchanan) and from 1951 to 1952, Hopalong rode for another 52 episodes. That’s how popular the character had become.

CBS would not be out done, and in July of 1950, Gene Autry debuted. The singing cowboy, Gene Autry was a man of many talents and plenty of foresight. His early TV show was mostly an opportunity for him to sing a bit while he and Pat Buttram did silly things. The program would run for 102 episodes. The show’s success would lead Autry to see the future of TV Westerns and he formed his own production company, Flying A Productions, which also produced Annie Oakley, Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr. and others. His Melody Ranch was used as the “backlot” for many Western scenes in both television and film.

Roy Rogers was crowned King of the Cowboys. He and his wife Dale Evans, his golden palomino, Trigger, and his German Shepherd dog, Bullet, were featured in more than 100 movies and The Roy Rogers Show. The show ran on radio for nine years before moving to television from 1951 through 1957. Rogers was an idol for many children through his films and television shows. Most of his postwar films were in Trucolor during an era when almost all other B-movies were black-and-white. With money from not only Rogers’ films but his own public appearances going to Republic Pictures, Rogers brought a clause into a 1940 contract with the studio where he would have the right to his likeness, voice and name for merchandising. There were Roy Rogers action figures, cowboy adventure novels, and playsets, as well as a comic strip, a long-lived Dell Comics comic book series (Roy Rogers Comics) written by Gaylord Du Bois, and a variety of marketing successes. Roy Rogers was second only to Walt Disney in the amount of items featuring his name.

The radio version of Gunsmoke ran from 1952 to 1961, and was the first successful "adult" Western. The television version ran for 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975, and was the United States’ longest-running prime time, live-action drama with 635 episodes. Once described as the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western as romanticized by Buntline, Harte, and Twain. It was ever the stuff of legend.

The Lone Ranger television series starring Clayton Moore ( and later John Hart ) and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, was by far the highest-rated television program on the ABC network in the early 1950s and its first true “hit”. The live-action series initially featured Gerald Mohr as the episode narrator. Fred Foy served as both narrator and announcer of the radio series from 1948 to its finish and became announcer of the television version when story narration was dropped there. The first 78 episodes were produced and broadcast for 78 consecutive weeks without any breaks or reruns. Then the entire 78 episodes were shown again before any new episodes were produced. It was the ABC television network's first big hit of the early 1950s. For the show's third season, Moore sat out due to a contract dispute and was replaced by John Hart. Moore returned for the final two seasons. The fifth and final season was the only one shot in color. A total of 221 episodes were made.

By 1957 the airwaves were filled with Westerns. Wagon Train, chronicled the adventures of a wagon train as it makes its way from Missouri to California. There were 284 episodes in 8 seasons. Maverick, with its comedic overtones, ran from September, 1957 to April, 1962 with 124 episodes on ABC and stars James Garner as Bret Maverick, a cagey, articulate cardsharp. Have Gun Will Travel followed the adventures of “Paladin”, a gentleman gunfighter (played by Richard Boone on television), who preferred to settle problems without violence; yet, when forced to fight, excelled. The show aired on CBS from 1957 through 1963. It was rated either number three or number four in the Nielsen ratings during each year of its first four seasons. It was one of the few television shows to spawn a successful radio version. The radio series debuted November 23, 1958.

Studios quickly realized that the Western didn't just appeal to men and accordingly cast hunky leads, who often appeared shirtless, to please the women. No longer did the hero kiss his horse and ride off into the sunset. Now he got to kiss the girl too!

By the Sixties, the Westerns, led by ratings winner Bonanza, begin broadcasting in color. The Virginian, High Chaparral and Rawhide, a television western series which aired on CBS from 1959 to 1966. It starred Eric Fleming and launched the career of Clint Eastwood. Its premiere episode reached the top 20 in the Nielsen ratings and were typical of Sixties TV Westerns.

Another such sixties show was The Big Valley, starting Barbara Stanwyck, as Victoria Barkley a widowed mother and California cattle baron. The TV series was based loosely on the Hill Ranch located at the western edge of Calaveras County, not far from Stockton (one episode places the Barkley Ranch a few hours’ ride from town while another has Jarrod riding past a Calaveras County sign on his way to the TV series’ ranch).[citation needed] The Hill Ranch existed from 1855 until 1931, exceeded 1,000 acres, and had the Mokelumne River running through it. Lawson Hill ran the ranch until he was murdered in 1861. His wife Euphemia (aka “Auntie Hill”) then became the matriarch. During their marriage they had four children, one daughter and three sons. Today, the location of the ranch is covered by the waters of Lake Camanche. A California state historical marker standing at Camanche South Shore Park mentions the historic ranch.

Traditional Westerns began to disappear from television in the late 1960s and early 1970s as color television became ubiquitous. 1968 was the last season any new traditional Westerns debuted on television; by 1969, after pressure from parental advocacy groups who claimed Westerns were too violent for television, all three of the major networks ceased airing new Western series. The two last traditional Westerns, Bonanza and Gunsmoke, ended their runs in 1973 and 1975 respectively.

This time in television history is known as the “rural purge”, an ongoing trend toward more urban-oriented programming, and would give way to a different kind of TV Western (If they were Westerns) all together. Hec Ramsey was a western who-dunnit mystery series. said to be groundbreaking in that it was the first television Western set in the days when the Old West was fading, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Critics dubbed the series “Dragnet meets John Wayne”, as the scripts balanced authentic investigative methods of 1900 with action and adventure. Little House on the Prairie was set on the frontier in the time period of the western, but was essentially a family drama. Kung Fu was in the tradition of the itinerant gunfighter westerns, but the main character was a Shaolin monk, the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, who fought only with his formidable martial art skill. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was a family adventure show about a gentle mountain man with an uncanny connection to wildlife who helps others who visit his wilderness refuge.

A hand full of series would come to television as spin offs from successful Western Movies. McCloud was a police drama that aired on NBC from 1970 to 1977. The title role was played by Dennis Weaver as Marshal Sam McCloud, a law officer from Taos, New Mexico on semi-permanent “special assignment” with the New York City Police Department. This premise of “a cowboy in the big city” was more or less adapted from the 1968 Don Siegel film Coogan’s Bluff, starring Clint Eastwood. The show ran 7 seasons with 46 episodes and even spun a TV movie.

How the West Was Won, a series that featured an all star cast that included James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner, was loosely based on the 1962 film of the same name, it aired as a mini-series in 1977, and as a regular series in 1978 and 1979. A 2.5-hour long pilot episode, A total of 25 episodes were aired. The show was a great success in Europe, apparently finding a larger and more lasting audience there than in the United States. It has been rebroadcast many times on various European networks, e.g. in France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, and has built a cult following.

The Magnificent Seven was a western television series based on the 1960 movie, which is a remake of the Japanese film Seven Samurai. It aired 22 episodes between 1998 and 2000. It was filmed in Newhall, California. Seven men from the western territory of the United States band together and form the law in a town that, for better or for worse, needs their protection from the lawlessness of the west. While they originally band together to protect a dusty Seminole village from renegade former Confederate soldiers (whereas the movie was about protecting a Mexican village from bandits), they later come together to protect a budding town from the constant riff raff that threatens to destroy it.

The late 1980’s and 90’s saw a slew of made for TV movies and miniseries based on popular western novels by Louis L’Amour. The Sacketts, in 1979, starring Tom Selleck, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Glenn Ford, Sam Elliott, among others. 1982’s, The Shadow Riders, staring Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross and Tom Selleck. Conagher in 1991, another L’Amour adaptation starring Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross.

Tony Hillerman’s novel The Dark Wind, was adapted as a feature film in 1991. It starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Jim Chee, an officer with the Navajo Tribal Police in Arizona. Chee investigates a murder, a robbery, and a mysterious plane crash. the film was produced by Robert Redford.

Loosely based on Michael Kohlhaas, a novel by Heinrich von Kleist, The Jack Bull was produced for HBO, and directed by John Badham. The story about a Horse trader Myrl Redding (played by John Cusack) a Wyoming horse trader who clashes with Henry Ballard, a fellow rancher, after Ballard abuses two of Myrl’s horses and their Crow Indian caretaker, Billy. When Judge Wilkins throws out Myrl’s complaint, the war he wages to force Ballard to nurse the emaciated animals back to health escalates into a vigilante manhunt, murder and the possible defeat of Wyoming’s bid for statehood.

Probably the most well know of these made for TV adaptations is Lonesome Dove. A 1985 Pulitzer Prize–winning western novel written by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry originally developed the tale in 1972, for a feature film entitled The Streets of Laredo (a title later used for the sequel), which would have been directed by Peter Bogdanovich and would have starred James Stewart as Augustus McCrae, John Wayne as W.F. Call, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon. But plans fell through when Wayne turned it down, leading Stewart to back out, and the project was eventually shelved. Suzanne De Passe and McMurtry decided to adapt the novel as a mini-series. It was then made into the four-part TV miniseries, which won seven Emmy Awards and was nominated for twelve others. The television miniseries adaptation, produced by Motown Productions, was broadcast on CBS in 1989. It starred Robert Duvall as Augustus McCrae, Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow F. Call, Rick Schroder as Newt, Diane Lane as Lorena Wood, Danny Glover as Joshua Deets, Robert Urich as Jake Spoon, Anjelica Huston as Clara Allen, Frederic Forrest as Blue Duck, Chris Cooper as July Johnson, and Barry Corbin as Roscoe Brown. It spawned four follow-up miniseries, Return to Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, and Comanche Moon, and two television series, Lonesome Dove: The Series and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.

Most of these Made for TV Westerns were very successful in the ratings and are considered classics in the genre.

Zorro, originally produced by Walt Disney Productions premiered in October of 1957 on ABC, was resurrected in 1990 and featuring Duncan Regehr as the character of Zorro. Regehr portrayed the fearless Latino hero and fencer on The Family Channel from 1990 to 1993. The series was shot entirely in Madrid, Spain and produced by New World Television, The Family Channel, and Zorro Productions. 88 episodes of the series were produced, 10 more than of the first Zorro television series. Another attempt to capitalize of this Classic Californio Character was be made in 2000. Queen of Swords, debuting Tessie Santiago as “The Queen”. A role that seems to be created from Catherine Zeta-Jones’s character in the 1998 feature film The Mask of Zorro. The show would land Santiago a nomination for a 2001 ALMA Award (American Latino Media Arts Award) for “Outstanding lead actress in a syndicated drama series”, but rating would not be as supportive. After filming had been completed on 22 episodes and the first eight episodes were broadcast, the series was canceled.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was multi-Emmy Award winning western/dramatic series created by Beth Sullivan. Dr. Michaela “Mike” Quinn, played by Jane Seymour, left Boston in search of adventure. She goes to Colorado Springs, Colorado where she establishes herself as doctor/adviser. It ran on CBS for six seasons, from January 1, 1993 to May 16, 1998. In total, 150 episodes were produced, plus two television movies which were made after the series’ cancellation. It aired in over 100 countries. Since 1997.

Walker, Texas Ranger was a long-running western/crime drama series, set in the modern era, that starred and later was produced by Chuck Norris. It ran on CBS for nine seasons, from 1993 to 2001. 203 episodes where made including one TV movie, Walker, Texas Ranger: Trial by Fire in 2005. Trial by Fire ended with Tarrant County D.A. Alexandra “Alex” Cahill-Walker, whom Walker dates for a while and ends up marrying, the victim of a courthouse shooting, leaving many viewers to believe that there would be a follow-up movie. In 2006, CBS said that they would no longer be producing “Sunday Night Movie of the Week” projects, which severely impaired any hopes of Walker’s return to television in the foreseeable future. For most of their time on air, Dr. Quinn and Walker aired on the same Saturday night lineup.

The 1990’s and the new millennium would also see a run of Si-Fi TV Westerns that would fall short.

In the 1993-1994 season, the Fox network aired a science fiction western called The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which lasted for only 27 episodes. Brisco takes place in a fictional Old West of 1893. The show features classic Western plot lines such as train robberies and gunfighter showdowns, in combination with unconventional elements. In almost every episode, the characters discover or are confronted by fantastic technology. This mix of the Western genre with fantasy that has helped Brisco maintain its cult status. The writers made it a point to insert scenes mirroring the pop culture of the 20th century, from the apparent invention of the term “UFO” in the pilot episode to the appearance of a sheriff who looks and acts like Elvis Presley.

In the fall of 1995, the UPN network aired its own science fiction western, Legend, which ended after 12 episodes. It was Richard Dean Anderson’s first major role after the successful MacGyver series, and also starred John de Lancie, best known for his role as “Q” in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Firefly was a space western set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system, and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship. While the show only ran 14 episodes in one season, It won an Emmy in 2003 for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series.

Peacemakers was a crime fiction television series about forensic science in the Old West starring Tom Berenger. The series premiered July 30, 2003, on the USA Network. The show was cancelled after one season of nine episodes.

Fans of the TV Western will finally get what they deserve in 2004. Authenticity, historical accuracy, and a bit of classic dime store novel “stretch the truth” adventure. Spanning three 12-episode seasons, HBO’s Deadwood would be ground breaking in it’s muddy streets, foul language and realism of the true West. The show is set in the 1870s in Deadwood, South Dakota, before and after the area’s annexation by the Dakota Territory. The series charts Deadwood’s growth from camp to town, incorporating themes ranging from the formation of communities to western capitalism. The show features a large ensemble cast, and many historical figures appear as characters on the show—such as Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, Sol Star, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, George Crook, E. B. Farnum, Charlie Utter and George Hearst. The show’s creator David Milch used actual diaries and newspapers from 1870s Deadwood residents as reference points for characters, events, and the look and feel of the show. Deadwood received wide critical acclaim, particularly for Milch’s writing and Ian McShane’s co-lead performance. The Show’s writers, costume, casting and art direction were repeatedly nominated for major awards. It also won eight Emmy Awards in 28 nominations. Ian McShane winning a Golden Globe award in the second season.

All of this leads up to “The Next Big Thing” in TV Westerns. Or is it? AMC’s Hell on Wheels, stars Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who works as a foreman on the Union Pacific railroad. Set in 1865, the series centers on the settlement that accompanied the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, referred to as “Hell on Wheels” by the company men, surveyors, support workers, laborers, prostitutes, mercenaries and others who make the mobile encampment their home. Cullen Bohannon tries to track down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. Original airing November 6, 2011, it’s hard to say if the show will be a classic. It was watched by 4.4 million viewers – AMC’s second-highest series premiere in history. The second and third episodes dropped in viewership, to 3.84 and 3.52 million viewers, respectively. The T’suu T’ina Native Indian Reservation, an Indian reserve in southern Alberta, was the location for most of the exteriors. Historically we know when (1869) and where (Promontory Summit in Utah Territory) the show ends, but getting there with this motley cast of characters may prove to be a bumpy ride. There has been some criticism for its lack of depiction of Chinese immigrants who labored on the transcontinental railroad. The creators originally planned to include both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines into the story, due to scheduling and budget restraints, they chose to focus on the Union Pacific line. The show’s creators, Joe and Tony Gayton have shown interest in expanding the story in later seasons to include the Central Pacific line and highlight the race between the two railroads. Still, some critics have considered the choice not to include Chinese American workers a missed opportunity. The multiple story lines change back and forth, and mingling together in degrees of separation just enough that you never seem to get to know enough to like any one character. Admittedly, it's early in the season, It's still hard to tell if the lead role of Bohannon is the kind of classic TV Western hero that will keep fans coming back for more. Could it be that the show's writers intend to reveal a completely different archetype for that role? Never the less, fans of the TV Western will "get" these character types, because without a doubt they have been seen before in TV shows and Western Movies. Certainly, adding Chinese American down the line as the stereo-typical railroad laborer may send viewers off the rails. After all, it's not 1957 anymore when Have Gun–Will Travel could get away with a Chinese bellhop at the Carlton Hotel, known as Hey Boy, played by Kam Tong. As I write this, the show is only 5 episodes in. AMC green-lighted the series with an order of 10 episodes. I'm not sure just yet if the show has what it takes to draw the much needed New Fan to be interested in the Western genre to keep the show on the right track, but it's picking up steam. Only time will tell.

Without a doubt, I have failed to include one show or another on this list. In my defense there really far too many TV Westerns to mention, and all of them a favorite for someone. The big question is, Why? Traditionally it's because with TV Westerns, you know what you are going to get. A hero, a villain, a save the day plot line and a ride off into the sunset kind of ending. Maybe, just maybe, some of us like it that way. The fact is, hero or villain, the Cowboy is the quintessential American icon.

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