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The Best Western TV Shows of the 1950's and 1960's
In my last article, I highlighted the top science fiction articles of the 1960's. Here I will be going over some of the best television Westerns that were playing on the screen back in the day, during the fifties and sixties, over 50 years ago. A few that I will mention actually ran into the seventies. Many of the shows like The Lone Ranger have become cult classics.
A few of the notable Westerns that did not make the cut include Maverick (1957-62) which starred James Garner, Wanted Dead or Alive (1958-61) which starred the amazing Steve McQueen, The Rebel (1959-61) with Nick Adams, and Broken Arrow (1956-58) starring Michael Ansara. Unlike the sci-fi series article, there is no order to this list. All the shows that follow are here considered equal, but at the end of the article, you can vote which is your favorite. Your vote will be kept and recorded in the poll.
The longest running TV Western ever, Gunsmoke originally aired for a twenty-year period from 1955 to 1975. The show inspired a series of novels and gave us the expression, "Get the hell out of Dodge." It starred James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon, a man of the law who upheld the law and was not afraid to defend himself whenever some crook got cocky and reached for a gun. Prior to appearance on the television screen, the Gunsmoke saga was a radio show which featured William Conrad as the voice of Marshall Dillon. (Conrad went on to star as the title character in the TV series Cannon [1971-76].)
The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger is a true legend. Like Gunsmoke, it started out as a radio show which was aired as early as 1933, a year during the Great Depression and the very same year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his "fireside chats" which were also broadcast to the United States via radio.
In The Lone Ranger TV version, Clayton Moore starred as the Lone Ranger from 1949 to 1951 and then again from 1954 to 1957. In Moore's absence, John Hart portrayed the title character for 52 episodes. Jay Silverheels, a true Native American Mohawk, played the Lone Ranger's "Injun" sidekick Tonto.
The radio show, as well as the TV show, used the epic William Tell Overture as the theme music. TV show guest stars included James Arness (Gunsmoke) and Michael Ansara (Broken Arrow). The classic series inspired a semi-recent theatrical adaptation of the Ranger's tale in 2013, Disney's The Lone Ranger which starred Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. The original Lone Ranger paved the way for the future of TV's masked crime fighters such as Zorro and The Green Hornet.
Disney's Zorro series ran steadily from 1957 to 1959 and starred Guy Williams as Don Diego de la Vega, also known as the swordsman Zorro. A few more contributions to the saga were apparently released in 1960 and 1961. Despite the fact that the show lasted but three seasons, Zorro became a hit and a huge cult classic. The classic story has since been made into feature films including The Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005).
Eventually, Guy Williams went on to play Professor John Robinson in the sci-fi series Lost in Space as pictured above with actress June Lockhart. Williams was actually quite an experienced fencer (which obviously aided him in the part of Zorro), and his passion for the art shows in several episodes of Lost in Space. Below is a video interview with Bill Mumy, another star of Lost in Space, in which Mumy discusses the Zorro star:
From 1959 to 1973, another one of the longest-ever running westerns, Bonanza, was aired. This series was the chronicles of the Cartwrights who worked and lived on their property the Ponderosa. An old west family of goodwill, the Cartwrights spent their days working the land, enforcing justice, and helping out other folks who needed help. Plus, Hoss Cartwright often poured money into businesses, inventions, etc. which usually fell through or failed.
The main cast included several notable actors including Lorne Greene (Battlestar Galactica) and Michael Landon (Little House on the Prairie). Guy Williams (Zorro) even guest starred in a few episodes of Bonanza.
Another high-ranking Cowboy Western series of great worth is Rawhide (1959-1965). Its main theme is cattle driving; that is the prime basis for the show. It has since become a large part of pop culture and is referenced in films such as The Blues Brothers (1980) and City Slickers (1991). One of the best supporting actors of the series was Clint Eastwood in his role of young Rowdy Yates. Eastwood has become a well-known Western film star noted for his movies like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). He is also a director and producer.
Running from 1957 to 1965, this series was based around another common concept of the old west: wagon train traveling. Wagon Train originally starred Ward Bond, who had acted in his fair share of film Westerns, as the Wagonmaster Seth Adams. The series was inspired by the 1950 movie Wagon Master which featured Ward Bond. Actor Robert Fuller, who went on to play Dr. Brackett in the show Emergency!, portrayed the regular character of Cooper Smith.
Based on Owen Wister's novel of the same title which was originally published in 1902, The Virginian was another long-running television Western. It was first aired from 1962 to 1971. The show's cast evolved and changed over the years and starred Doug McClure and James Drury. It was also the first acting gig in which Harrison Ford was billed in the credits as "Harrison Ford." He played Cullen Tindall in the episode "The Modoc Kid" and a rancher in "A Bad Place to Die." Ford went on to star in film series such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
The Wild, Wild West
The Wild, Wild West ran from 1965 to 1969 and starred Robert Conrad (who went on to star in the Baa Baa Black Sheep show) and Ross Martin. It combined the concepts of rugged Western existence and expansion as well as espionage. James T. West (Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Martin) were members of the U.S. secret service under Ulysses S. Grant's presidency.
Somewhat similar to the sixties espionage character Maxwell Smart of the comedy series Get Smart, James West constantly had stuff stored in secret compartments in his shoes such as plastic explosives, knife blades, and parts of a derringer. Like a few of the other Westerns mentioned here, it prompted a feature film based on its characters.
The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors and originally ran from 1958 to 1963. Connors, who went on to star in the short-lived Western Branded, played Lucas McCain, and Johnny Crawford played his son Mark. Popular guest stars on the series included Dabbs Greer (Little House on the Prairie) and Dan Blocker (Bonanza).
Have Gun - Will Travel
Have Gun - Will Travel ran from 1957 to 1963, starring Richard Boone as the main character Paladin, a wealthy man who made his living hiring out his gun which he usually had to use. Paladin seemed to be the perfect man: a man of morals, of science, of culture and class, of literature and the arts, and of a knowledge of languages including Chinese, Spanish, Greek, and Latin. He also made out pretty well with the ladies in nearly every episode.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek franchise, wrote 24 episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel. Richard Boone went on to portray J.B. Books' enemy in John Wayne's final film performance, The Shootist (1976).
Now Vote for Your Favorite
Which of the Western series mentioned below was your favorite?
© 2017 John Tuttle