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TV Westerns - 1970s

Updated on May 26, 2012

The western was a staple of television programming in the 1950s and 1960s, and was a mainstay of American entertainment in film, radio and popular fiction for decades before that. Some of the earliest TV westerns, such as The Lone Ranger, were continuations of programs that had been popular for years as radio dramas.

Since its decline in the 1970s, the TV western has been difficult to find.
Since its decline in the 1970s, the TV western has been difficult to find. | Source

Of the four longest-running TV westerns, which is your favorite?

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By the 1970s, however, the television western had entered a period of decline from which it has never recovered. Not only was there a backlash against television violence in general, but networks were also beginning to cater to a more urban, sophisticated demographic, which they felt could command higher advertising rates.

Even programs with contemporary rural themes, such as Mayberry, RFD and Green Acres were being canceled (in some cases despite ratings that did not merit cancellation).

Gunsmoke Cancelled

A number of long-running westerns were canceled in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The High Chaparral, The Virginian and Bonanza. The bedrock of the western genre, however (and arguably the best TV western ever), was Gunsmoke, which began as a radio program in 1952, and first appeared on television in 1955. The end of Gunsmoke's 20-year run on CBS was a clear indication that the age of the traditional TV western was over.

Non-traditional Westerns

There were occasional attempts throughout the decade to see if the once-venerable genre had any life remaining. Most of these new shows lasted only a single season – some not even that long. Only one series, ABC's Alias Smith and Jones, lasted more than one season (1971-1973).

A few non-traditional westerns had some success, however. These shows were set in the 19th-century American west, but differed in other ways from the traditional western:

David Carradine in Kung-Fu.
David Carradine in Kung-Fu. | Source
  • Kung Fu (ABC, 1972–1975): David Carradine starred as a Shaolin monk traveling the American Old West, forgoing guns in favor of his Shaolin philosophy and martial arts skills. The series was revived in 1993 as Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which ran for 4 seasons, again starring David Carradine.
  • Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974-1982): based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about a pioneer family on the American frontier in the 1800s. Three made-for-TV movies followed: Little House: Look Back to Yesterday (1983), Little House: Bless All the Dear Children (1983), and Little House: The Last Farewell (1984).
  • The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (NBC, 1977-1978): a frontier man (played by Dan Haggerty), is wrongly accused of murder, and hides from bounty hunters in the mountains, where he befriends a grizzly bear. The series was based on the 1974 movie of the same name, and was followed by two 90-minute TV specials and a 1982 TV movie, The Capture of Grizzly Adams, in which Adams finally proves his innocence.

Western Mini-series

By the end of the 1970s, television networks were experimenting with the mini-series format. A few western mini-series were produced during this period:

  • How the West Was Won (ABC, 1977): a pioneer family, the Macahans, move west during the time of the American Civil War. This follow-up to the 1976 TV movie The Macahans became a weekly series in 1978, followed by several made-for-TV movies In 1979.
  • The Young Pioneers (ABC, 1978): a pair of young newlyweds settle in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. Based on two novels written by Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder).
  • The Chisholms (CBS, 1979): a pioneer family travels west in the mid 1800s. The mini-series was followed by a short-lived regular series in 1980.

One of the great TV theme songs:

Can the TV Western Come Back?

The TV western has never regained the level of popularity it once had. Fans of the genre wait for that one new break-out hit that could return the western to prominence in the copy-cat medium of television.

In the meantime, fortunately, many classic TV westerns are still available as reruns, on DVD, or for free online.

Take the 1970s TV Westerns Quiz:

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    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      The Rifleman is a favorite of mine as well, PWalker281. And I also saw Cowboys and Aliens. It was pretty much what I expected - cowboys and aliens, and comic-book style action (it was actually based on a comic book). It wasn't great but it was OK for what it was.

      The tv westerns of the 60s hub is on my to do list...

    • profile image

      PWalker281 5 years ago

      This hub certainly brought back memories of watching westerns in the 50s through the 70s. I remember when Burt Reynolds was cast as a "half-breed" (I know that term is probably not PC these days) in Gunsmoke; I think it was his first big break in TV. There was also The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors. I still love westerns and thoroughly enjoyed Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and Silverado. More recently, I actually saw Cowboys and Aliens, a total Avatar rip-off. What can I say, I love westerns :-).

      Looking forward to that tv westerns of the 60s hub, Doc. Rated this one up and interesting.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Thanks Teresa. At least there are several decades worth of great westerns on DVD that we can watch until the genre comes back in style. Netflix has a bunch of 'em.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I loved the Westerns as a kid. I was a kid in the 70's and I vividly remember Gunsmoke and Bonanza. I also watched both Kung Fu and Little House on the Prairie. I grew up with Laura Ingalls anxiously waiting for each weeks episode. Thanks for a great hub that brought back a lot of memories. I too hope the genre makes a comeback!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Thanks for the votes, Steve! You are correct, the 60s was the golden age. I'm thinking of doing a hub on 60s westerns, but there were so many. Maybe I'll do a top 10 or something. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      Interesting hub, from the ones you've listed I think I only watched Kung Fu in the 70's. Oh wait Alias Smith and Jones was another I remember watching.

      I think the 60's was the golden age of TV westerns, Virginian, Rawhide, Bonanza, High Chaparall, Wild Wild West.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Alissa, Gunsmoke was a biggie at my house, too. Thanks for the votes!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      cclitgirl, one of the reasons there are so many "reality" shows is that they usually are relatively cheap to make - no expensive sets, star cast, etc. I didn't have HBO when Deadwood was on, but I've been meaning to see it. Thanks for the comments.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 5 years ago from Normandy, TN

      I grew up in the 80s too but I do remember watching Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie all the time. I can't remember what channel the reruns came on but my dad was especially a big fan of Gunsmoke. My husband is a big western fan too so he would love if they could one day recreate one of these classic shows! Great hub - voted up!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Very interesting. I was a kid of the 80s, so I never did watch westerns much. But, you presented them here in such a good light, that I might have to give some of the re-runs a try! I can see why they declined in their popularity: the public moved on to the urban stuff, like you said. That makes a lot of sense. Now, it seems like reality TV is the norm. Maybe they'll make a reality show about "Surviving in the Wild West." That would be the day. Now, there is one exception that I HAVE to mention. You've probably heard of Deadwood. This is like a modern Shakespeare in its artistic quality, but it's a western. It's vulgar and the language is, um, colorful, but if you look beyond that and into the plot lines, this show can hook you in. So, yes, I'd be open to more westerns. :)