For those of us who constituted the first generation of TV-addicted children, the Western proved to be the most important single influence on our lives. Values promoted by such shows shaped our sensibility, even if we were under the impression that nothing was going on here except for some action-filled fun. But all entertainment contains subtexts, whether the people who fashioned the work intended them to be there or not. TV product, like movies, music, and comic books, shapes the mind of the receiver (particularly impressionable children) experiencing them. At the same time, pop culture reflects, if often unconsciously, the world out of which such shows emerge. Or at least a vision of that world held by the individual artisans, and in rare cases true artists, who work within a commercial medium to create what we then blissfully enjoy.
"Cowboys are special," Willie Nelson mournfully sighs in a country-western song. In the twenty-first century, that's true for fewer Americans than was once the case. The very word cowboy has become politicized. When journalists speak of "cowboy politics," they aren't being complimentary. Since the election of 1980, the Cowboy Way has ceased to suggest a universalized American style of thinking, being, doing; that phrase is associated instead, fairly or unfairly, with a specific agenda. Tragic, perhaps, yet true: The cowboy—an icon from dime novels, TV, and movies as opposed to the hardworking person that term was created to describe more than 200 years ago—is more likely to divide twenty-first-century Americans according to their sensibilities than to bring us together. Still, for a child of the fifties, as well as most anyone who was young then, cowboys were special. To again quote Willie Nelson, they have always been, and will always be, our heroes—role models we have aspired to emulate ever since the cowboy (and sometimes cowgirl) during that century became transformed into an ideal; part of our myth pool, a nation's shared imagination, at a time when the daily news was the least-watched thing on TV. Not anymore! We exist in a reality that comes at us from every possible direction via cable news channels; all day, every day.
This is now; that was then.
This book is intended as a source on those actors who defined the TV Western, as well as the shows in which they appeared. Though the volume is as complete as possible, there had to be limits, owing to space. So, then: My first priority was to include every actor ever to receive star billing in a Western series. As to shows with more than one name above the title, all are present here. As it became imperative not to repeat information, key details about a series not found under one performer's entry show up in the section on a costar, explaining why the book is carefully cross-indexed.
An obvious example: All four of Bonanza's leads are included, but details on that show are divided between them (as well as key supporting actors), based on which facts seemed most appropriate for a specific player. As to supporting casts, the selection process had to be determined by the impact of any one actor. Glenn Strange, beloved bartender on Gunsmoke, has his own entry. Many townspeople who wandered in and out of that show's Dodge are mentioned in passing under James Arness, if they came into contact with "Matt Dillon," or Amanda Blake, the case with various bartenders employed by "Miss Kitty." The same approach holds true for other shows with large ensembles.
My next priority: Include every star who has made his or her reputation by appearing in made-for-TV Western movies/miniseries. For instance, country singers Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson so closely associated themselves with Westerns in the eighties that they became essential to this book's concept. On the other hand, there's a difference between acting in a Western and being perceived as a Western actor. People who once or twice appeared in a Western (there are hundreds of them) aren't necessarily thought of as cowboy stars and so aren't included here.
The credits for each entry had to be selective, owing to space considerations. For any one series, dates given are those years in which the show ran. Cast members who left early or joined later are identified by the year span during which they appeared. TV movies are dated by the precise day, month, and year when initially broadcast if such information was available. Likewise, guest appearances, miniseries (two to three nights), and maxi-series (four or more nights) are indicated by the day the show debuted. Another priority was to provide a sourcebook as to which actors have portrayed actual people. Historical names are listed without quotation marks, which indicate a fictional character.
As many performers were also active in movies, theatrical credits are selectively listed to offer a full sense of the actor's screen (big and small) iconography: what the career, the image, meant. It's necessary to emphasize, then, that the form or genre covered here is related to theatrical Westerns. Any attempt to totally separate the two conveys a false impression of each. On the other hand, certain key differences should not, and will not, be overlooked.
So, to start at the beginning, during the early days of commercial television (roughly 1946-1951), old movies dominated in tandem with experimental live programming. During afternoon hours, when children constituted the chief audience, Westerns ruled. Because major studios initially feared TV, hesitating to release product, offerings were low-budget quickies from Poverty Row companies such as Mascot, PRC, and Monogram. The best of the lot, shot with more care and craftsmanship than those featuring, say, Whip Wilson, were William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidys. This partly explains the era's "Hoppy Craze" when these were first aired, though the charisma of the man in black with silver hair cannot be overstated. Quickly, TV's immense appetite (showing on a weekly basis movies that had taken a month or more to produce circa 1930-1950) created the need for more. Producer/star Boyd filmed new Hoppys even as the first season of The Lone Ranger commenced.
Shortly, Gene Autry-Roy Rogers "singing cowboy" films showed up as well. By 1951 both big-screen luminaries were, like Boyd, busily producing fresh material. While such shows must be considered descendents of their theatrical antecedents, they constitute something other than extensions of them. Rogers and Autry chose thirty-minute formats (twenty-two to twenty-four minutes of film, leaving six to eight minutes for commercials) rather than the fifty-plus minutes of theatrical Bs. Scripts were designed as two-act plays, constructed so ads could be placed after the opening titles, at the midpoint, and as the story concluded but before the final credits rolled. This led to a different and unique narrative form. Hour-long B Westerns, like non-genre pieces produced on a larger budget, naturally fell into a three-act format. In Roy Rogers-Dale Evans movies, the way in which they met, first rubbed each other wrong, fell in love, then came together for a fade-out kiss became a ritual, each movie a variation on that theme. Rogers used his own name, while Evans played a new character in each. On their TV series, Evans, like Rogers, went by her own name. Their relationship, set in cement in the pilot (initial installment), continued from one week to the next.
All of this helps us understand why the TV Western can be considered a form unto itself. The Hoppy television films came closest to previous theatrical movies, allowing for an understanding of why, despite their incredible impact then, they're less vividly recalled today than the Rogers or Autry shows. TV Hoppys, however important as a bridge between what came before and what would follow, represented an attempt to make movies for TV. Autry and Rogers, rather, created the TV Western series, which soon usurped their forerunners' place in public entertainment. Autry originally employed his series to plug upcoming movie releases; within a few years, Autry films were no longer being produced. Little matter the subtle if basic differences between a theatrical film and a TV episode. To the public, it seemed silly to pay for B movies when, at least in the potential audience's conception, they could catch a reasonable facsimile for free. This raises the issue of what a B Western is, and the manner in which that term will be employed here.
A certain type of B Western used to be churned out quickly, often without quality control. These featured minor-league names (Eddie Dean), mounted by those aforementioned Poverty Row companies. Such films would be better referred to (as they are here) as C Westerns. A higher level of juvenile film (Rogers, Autry) was produced, often at Republic Studios, by people who did care about their reputation. These truly do rate as B items. With a bigger budget for exterior action scenes—rather than stock footage left over from silent-movie days, which the "cheapies" relied on—they rated as B movies at their best. Don't Fence Me In (1945) with Roy Rogers, the title song provided by the prestigious Cole Porter, sits at the top of that heap.
Republic is often referred to as the biggest of the minor studios, sometimes too as the smallest major. On occasion, Republic pushed the limits of B filmmaking by producing what will be referred to here as B+ films. Originally starring John Wayne (1940s), later Sterling Hayden (1950s), many were impressive in their visual approach and ran a full ninety minutes or more. Often they were shot in color, though color at Republic didn't compare with that element at any other studio. Republic color reduced everything to blue-greens and orange-reds, disorienting to newcomers today, charmingly nostalgic for longtime fans. The true majors, ranging from Columbia and Universal (lowliest at that time) to the big boys over at Warner Bros. and MGM (20th Century-Fox, Paramount, and RKO Radio Pictures existed somewhere in between), likewise turned out Westerns, each company too proud to release junk. Still, they had writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, sound people, etc., under contract, drawing paychecks whether they worked or not. It wouldn't have been cost efficient to allow them to perform only on occasional prestige products.
Such studios regularly made what are (incorrectly) referred to as B movies. These featured the same professionalism as their A movies, if with tighter budgets and shorter (seventy-five to eighty minutes) running times, featuring lesser names. B+ items ("bread and butter pictures"), including Westerns, are more properly referred to as programmers. Playing double bills, a Universal Audie Murphy might be paired with an Abbott and Costello comedy or the latest sci-fi/horror opus. Along with a cartoon and coming attractions, such a program could fill the bill at local theaters in an off-week, in between releases of that studio's A pictures. At various companies, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, George Montgomery, and John Payne were the featured stars.
Such films did continue to appear even after the advent of TV, since television could not yet provide anything comparable on a weekly basis. If you hankered to see such stuff, you had to pay. To ensure that the audience would do precisely that, studio-program pictures inched ever closer to A-movie status. Whereas a relatively early Audie Murphy like Cast a Long Shadow would consist of an eighty-two-minute black-and-white item, two years later Posse from Hell ran eighty-nine minutes and was shot in color. Some even employed the new widescreen process.
Yet between 1959 and 1961, these films too disappeared, again in reaction to TV. More ambitious shows were now being filmed. Most ran sixty minutes. The half-hour Gunsmoke expanded to an hour. Many series, like The Big Valley, were shot in color. Again, why would a viewer pay to see what he could catch at home for free? So Hollywood concentrated on A Westerns, starring the likes of Wayne, James Stewart, and Robert Mitchum. When TV dared try a ninety-minute format (beginning with The Virginian in 1962), A movies swiftly declined in number. Hollywood now focused on all-star extravaganzas (How the West Was Won, 1962), even as European-lensed spaghetti Westerns appeared with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), reinventing the movie Western after what had previously constituted precisely that now popped up on TV.
In addition to production values, television had, back in 1955, made the move from juvenile Westerns for Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons to adult oaters for primetime. The adult Western film had been born early in the decade, following the success of The Gunfighter and Winchester '73 (both 1950), High Noon (1952), and Shane (1953). Here, the lines between good and bad were purposefully blurred, villains no longer motiveless malignancies but psychologically troubled souls. Heroes gave way to antiheroes. As the most conservative of all mass media, TV waited until such fare had been accepted by the public before venturing into this territory. In fall 1955, Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Gunsmoke appeared. Like the juvenile shows preceding them, which continued to be made, such series obeyed essential genre rules: fist- and gunfights, action balanced with romance. The hero never allowed himself to be tied down by any one attractive lady, whether for the fact-based Earp (his wives, two or three depending on differing accounts, were not present) or for the fictional "Matt Dillon" on Gunsmoke.
Another key element of the adult variation was a protagonist's need to make a living. In the juveniles, the hero—whether he assumed the name, if nothing else, of an actual person, as with Wild Bill Hickok or Kit Carson, or was entirely fictitious, as on The Lone Ranger and The Range Rider—had no visible means of support. He merely rode around solving problems for people, likely with a trustworthy sidekick. In an adult TV Western, as with its theatrical counterparts, the hero needed a paycheck; that much was true to life. On the other hand, he had no interest in family commitments, or had been married and now lived as a widower (The Rifleman, Bonanza).
As such, the hero qualified as a male fantasy figure. Suburbanites could come home to what Malvina Reynolds called little houses made of ticky-tacky (and they all looked just the same). And after supper, or better still while consuming a TV dinner, they could escape into a dream west where a man named "Bronco" never did get around to settling down. All that would change during the 1960s as society shifted; shortly, so did the popular culture that reflects our world. The bland conformity of the Eisenhower era abruptly ended. Jack Kennedy's New Frontier (the very term referencing Westerns) became central. During the hippie era, young people were not content to merely watch romanticized images of footloose drifters. They became just such people, likely in part as a result of earlier absorbing TV's fantasy images and trying to turn that cowboy ideal into a reality. No wonder fringed jackets and Indian beads were part of every dropout's costume!
Such behavior threatened an older America that once took delight in such escapism while remaining tightly locked into a traditional value system. The idea that their kids were, for better or worse, actually living out their own bygone dreams of freedom sparked hostility, so no longer did they care for the kind of Westerns they'd once enjoyed. At that moment, the loner cowboy disappeared.
There were still loners, only now they were spies, more in tune with the international/ultra-contemporary tenor of the times. Even as High Noon led to Gunsmoke, the success of Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond film, opened the door for I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Secret Agent/Danger Man on TV. Now, Westerns focused on families, from Bonanza's always happy Cartwrights in the decade's early years, each male as single as those earlier TV cowboys but bound together in one place by land and blood, to The High Chaparral's ever-arguing Cannons in the late sixties, which included marriage and children as part of the equation. As the once hopeful decade drew to its difficult close, everything from assassinations of national leaders through Vietnam and ghetto burnings to the Watergate hearings conspired to shake the foundations of our society. And with it, our popular culture.
Dennis Hopper, who guest-starred as Billy the Kid on various TV shows in the fifties, now offered an anti-romantic vision of "Billy" as a contemporary drug-dealing motorcyclist. His partner? "Wyatt" (Earp?), played by Peter Fonda, son of the greatest movie Wyatt Earp, Henry, in Easy Rider (1969). Hopper stated: "I don't believe in heroes anymore." In an era when "Travis Bickle" (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976) reflected the alienation of many Americans (notably, he affected the guise of an Indian, the enemy of cowboys), the old hero, with his Code of the West, could not exist.
In ever more cynical times, the cowboy would be posited first as a tragic figure (Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave, 1962), then as a perfect fool (Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou, 1965), later still as a dangerous nihilist (William Holden, The Wild Bunch, 1969). Or, on a lighthearted note, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), as a misplaced sophisticate. That same year, in a far darker incarnation, Holden, one of the stars who a decade earlier had embodied the old myth, now undermined it. "If they move," his bank robber "Pike" instructs his cohorts about the semi-innocent people standing in their way, "kill them!" In due time, TV took up this mantle. Soon small-screen Westerns also were set at the fin de siècle, involving old-timers (Richard Boone in Hec Ramsey, James Garner in Nichols) attempting to adjust to a more scientific world or bad boys who provided role models (Alias Smith and Jones) during the Youth Movement.
Not that the family drama ceased to exist. In the second half of the sixties, Daniel Boone set the pace for full-family shows (husband, wife, kids) who farmed rather than ranched. That series ended its six-year run in 1970. Similar shows such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons succeeded it. Were they, in fact, Westerns? The former (set on the frontier, if without genre trappings), perhaps. The latter (the thirties, in the Southeast)? Probably not. Then again, was Daniel Boone a Western? According to executive producer/star Fess Parker, the show might more correctly be considered an Eastern. Here, then, is yet another paradox: a series that did obey most Western genre rules yet presented them in an earlier farm community rather than a later ranching one.
The very term Western, then, is more complex than it appears, most often employed to indicate stories set during the post-Civil War era, up to the turn of the century, with the focus on men who wear what we call cowboy hats. So the term Western has often been interchangeable with the sobriquet cowboy movie/series. Even in major projects, however, that's more perception than reality. Several important works (obviously Howard Hawks's Red River, 1948, and Charles Marquis Warren's Rawhide, 1959-1966) do deal with men who drove cattle up the trail from Texas. Others, including film and TV versions of Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), dealt with "hands" employed on a ranch. Still, in them, aspects of the gunfighter, a small coterie of perhaps two thousand people compared with the millions of young men who actually cowboyed, were grafted onto what in truth is best described as a blue-collar worker on horseback. As a result, we witnessed the creation of a mythic figure, best referred to as (borrowing from critic Robert Warshow) the Westerner.
Most traditional TV Westerns, like movies, deal with such a figure: part cowboy, part Indian fighter, part gunslinger, etc. Certain Western subgenres assume a different tack by focusing on mountain men, the cavalry, townspeople, or miners; sometimes (more recently) the Indian, from his point of view rather than glimpsed as a threat by Anglo heroes; occasionally African Americans and other ethnicities, like the Latino as hero rather than surly villain or silly sidekick; and, particularly since the seventies' feminist movement, women not as the hero's girlfriend but as a central character.
As to time and place, the aforementioned Eastern is set on the first frontiers, before Lewis and Clark, and in time John Charles Fremont and Kit Carson, explored those vast ranges of forest and prairie that lay to the west, as Jane Tompkins has put it, of everything. In Easterns, stories concern la longue carabines, be they fictional ("Natty Bumppo") or factual (Daniel Boone). Most such stories take place during the French and Indian Wars or the American Revolution. To Boone, living in North Carolina, the dark, bloody, uninhabited (even by Indians) ground called Kan-Tuc-Kee was the West. But for David Crockett a generation later, Kentucky, even some portions of Tennessee, represented the East. The West consisted of unknown land beyond the Obion River. And, once that was settled, far-off places ... Texas. California. Oregon.
Most of what we refer to as the East at one time had been perceived as the West. And the Far West at that! To people living in Albany, New York, in 1776, as described in Walter Edmonds's novel Drums Along the Mohawk (1936, realized onscreen in John Ford's 1939 film), anything west of their city constituted the frontier, those two terms becoming synonymous in our American lexicon. The West/frontier symbolized a promised land, those seemingly endless unknown territories, a place where no man (at least no Anglo) had walked before; virgin land. That conception, however unaware everyone may have then been of the implications, at once suggested religious, political, and sexual implications.
The Western frontier, as Frederick Jackson Turner would posit it in 1890 (when he and the Bureau of the Census announced that the American frontier would shortly cease to exist), could best be thought of as an invisible line on the horizon, dividing civilization just behind the great national march from the savagery that stretched ahead. A frontiersman (the Westerner) may in his early incarnation wear a coonskin cap instead of a Stetson, live not in Dodge City or San Antone but Detroit, or, in the case of a Southern, the swamps of Florida. A Northern? Skagway's frozen landscape.
But since the mid-sixties, most "oaters" (sometimes called Turnerian Westerns) have been set at a moment in time after that demarcation point disappeared, when no frontier exists, and, speaking symbolically rather than geographically, no West. Such narratives are played out on a post-frontier landscape, the protagonist no longer a man of the moment but an embarrassing anachronism: a once noble figure who now looks a little ridiculous. In literature, here is the end of the American adventure as portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers and The Prairie, even as the first frontier had appeared in The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, and The Last of the Mohicans. At least since Sam Peckinpah's elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), films have provided much the same vision. On TV, this conception first appeared with Rod Serling's The Loner (1965), each such work indicating that at the moment of its production, the Western had slipped into the sort of decline that "the West" itself had half a century earlier.
As the golden age of Westerns closed, genre pieces came to deal with the end of the West's golden age, real or imagined, helping us understand why, after 1970, a young cowboy became hard to locate on the small screen. Not to worry, though, since those two long-associated terms had split apart: The end of the West did not necessarily imply the end of the frontier. We simply had to move in other directions. Norman Mailer, in Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), suggested that America's involvement in Southeast Asia might derive from an unconscious desire to find a new place where we could play cowboys and Indians; this likely posited the first significant debunking of the cowboy icon.
In a totally different vein, we now traveled upward rather than west. Kennedy's New Frontier led to Star Trek ("Space: The Final Frontier") on TV, as well as Lost in Space, and at the movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968). When Star Wars (1977) opened almost a decade later, viewers noted that the cantina looked like a Western saloon reset on some distant planet; Han Solo, the lone gunman, is Ringo from The Gunfighter, challenged by the young punk Greedo. Battlestar Galactica then popped up on TV. Its premise? Wagon Train in deep space. The star? Lorne Greene, formerly of Bonanza. The space opera (as compared to actual science fiction like Blade Runner, featuring the same star, Harrison Ford) is the horse opera transferred to that new frontier. Little wonder, then, that Clint Eastwood (of TV's Rawhide) eventually directed and starred in a film called Space Cowboys (2000) with TV Western veterans James Garner (Maverick) and Tommy Lee Jones (Lonesome Dove). Apparently, our heroes will always be cowboys, in one form or another, if now heroes to only half of America. When the traditional cowboy disappeared from large and small screens in the 1970s, other groups of Western people—farmers, Indians, Asians, Latinos, mountain men—previously relegated to the backdrop came into their own: in the movies, Jeremiah Johnson (1972); on TV, Grizzly Adams. In an age when weekend camping first became a popular pastime and environmentalism went mainstream, the mountain man (who in reality ransacked the wilderness) would be presented and accepted as a symbol of the rare enlightened Anglo who could live at peace with Indians, at one with the natural world. Owing to changes in our social orientation, the mountain man supplanted the cowboy as Western hero, though Hollywood's seventies' version of such trappers had no more in common with his historical predecessor than did the icons of earlier cowboy shows.
Nor should they. History exists in books; on screens, big or small, the mythology of Westerns is derived from Homer, not Herodotus. The cowboy would, incidentally, inch back into our public consciousness. The same year that Ronald Reagan campaigned for and won the presidency in part by posing in front of the Alamo in a Stetson, more Western films (Long Riders, Tom Horn, Bronco Billy, etc.) were released than during the entire previous decade. Simultaneously, the Western made a comeback on TV, if not in series form, then as made-for-TV movies and miniseries starring a new generation of Western stars (Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck). Most were based on books by Louis L'Amour, favorite author of John Wayne, for whom Hondo had been specifically written. These new TV films were self-consciously designed in a traditionalist manner, aware and proud of retro sensibilities. Often they featured old-timers as living homages to that real or imagined "Code," if not of the West itself than of Western TV shows and movies. Yes, the cowboy was revived as a hero, though no longer a national one, and more likely revered in red states, reviled in blue ones.
Must that mythic figure now always be divisive? Not necessarily; Lonesome Dove (1989), a work of TV narrative genius from Larry McMurtry's superb novel, managed to have it both ways, delighting traditionalists as well as a new generation of viewers hoping for something more realistic and less romanticized. In truth, though, that show appears to be an exception, not the rule. Deadwood, the most significant undertaking since Lonesome Dove (a period piece, certainly, though hardly a genre piece in any conventional sense), offends traditionalists (mainly older, mostly rural) as much as it delights an emergent urban generation that perceives cowboys less as heroes than as dirty rotten scoundrels.
The answer to my rhetorical question, then? Probably, unless some miracle happens and America sets aside the polarization of both our politics and our popular culture.
Finally, this encyclopedia is intended as interpretive in addition to informative. While I go to great lengths to include all pertinent details about any one performer and the show (or, in many cases, shows) of which he or she was a part, I present this as a subjective work. Which series I most (or least) admire will be obvious. Larger amounts of space are spent analyzing those shows and stars I believe made the greatest contributions. We are what we watch, though it's often difficult to determine whether the images in our entertainment imitate reality (an idea traceable back to Sophocles) or if it's the other way around. Most likely a bit of both. The point is, if today's pop culture/TV allows us a window, however distorted, on our world, then artifacts from yesteryear let us glance into a mirror at the way we were. I hope that this volume will accurately represent that mirror, or at least the element of it called the TV Western.