By Clay Riness —
If you were a screen actor in the 1950s and 60s, it’s likely you would have had to know how to ride a horse. Why? It was the golden age of westerns.
America’s first prime-time western, the “Hopalong Cassidy” show, debuted in 1949 and was directed at a children’s audience. Other westerns, like “The Roy Rogers Show,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Gene Autry Show” followed suit. “Gunsmoke,” adapted from a popular radio series and targeted toward a broader audience, first aired in 1955 and ran for a staggering 635 episodes until its end in 1975.
The burgeoning American television audience went all in. By 1959, 30 westerns were on prime time, and for the next decade these classic westerns would dominate. The list is impressive, if not nostalgic … “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Rawhide,” “Cheyenne,” “Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Maverick,” “The Rebel,” “Wagon Train,” “Laramie,” “The Big Valley,” “Death Valley Days,” “The Virginian” and so many more.
I was just a young boy growing up in that innocent age of TV cowboys. Along with every other boy my age, I was pretending to be a cowboy like the ones we watched with utter devotion.
To be fair, the industry got a lot wrong. Fancy scarves, Hollywood hats and jackets, six guns that could fire a dozen rounds without being reloaded, cabin fires that somehow could be miraculously put out by a beating with a blanket. In any canyon shootout, there’s a ricochet on every shot unless it hits someone. Drinking from any water source without purification is fine, unless finding a poisonous waterhole bolsters the storyline. And, of course, racial stereotypes and portrayals that, by today’s standards, would melt many people into a triggered mess. We didn’t know better, we just loved being entertained. We loved being the good guy.
In the late 60s things began winding down as America’s taste in programming began to change with the “rural plunge” coming. A more urban-oriented slate was on the way as viewers, with an elevated interest in science fiction and other types of programming, began craving something else. However, it was in those last few years that my all-time favorite western (as a kid, that is) briefly ruled the roost. Science fiction, the rise of James Bond, and the remaining popularity of westerns brought us “The Wild Wild West,” which ran from 1965 to 1969. It was five seasons of espionage, fist fights, crazy spy gadgets, evil villains, polyester pants, shootouts, master-of-disguising, steam power, giant gears and save-the-world scripts.
I loved every minute of it. I would sit on the rug, using a pillow for my horse, little toy pistols and a kid-size cowboy hat … and believe you me, I WAS James West.
Of course, during the golden age there were many westerns on the big screen, too, some of them destined to be classics, some not so much. Film giant John Wayne almost literally played the same character in scores of films. A friend once told me “‘True Grit’ was one of the greatest westerns ever, in spite of Glen Campbell’s attempt at acting.”
Classic-style westerns are hard to find on today’s network prime-time menu. In more recent decades, however, we have certainly seen some excellent movies. Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” may have been dark, but it was powerful. “Quigley Down Under,” “Open Range,” “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp” were all fine movies. And, in my view, the best western of all time was the adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” a miniseries for television featuring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in their two iconic roles as Gus and Woodrow.
Yep, old pards, I still love watching classic TV westerns, and I can, now that we have channels like Grit, MeTV, H&I and TV Land. They certainly know their audience. They know we boomers are reliving our youth via these old shows. You can tell they know it’s us because all the commercials are about products of interest to our demographic. They’re fraught with rewritten 1970s hit songs selling medications for ailments we are likely to suffer from. Life insurance, class action lawsuits, hearing aids, healthcare plans, cruises … not a single violent video game on the ad roster. Hmm …
If this was a western and I was in it, I might be holed up at a line shack, a bullet in my belly, knowing they’re coming to finish me off. But, I won’t give them the satisfaction. I might turn to my pard and say, “Go. Take the goods, take all of it. Just leave me a pistol … and one bullet.”
Um … no, that’s not a cry for help. I’m being dramatic. It’s a western!