Back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were more than twenty western shows on TV at one time. Each one had a gimmick. There was Bat Masterson with his cane and derby hat, Chuck Connors with a sawed off shotgun, Richard Boone with his unique calling card, Nick Adams wearing a rebel hat and so on…
My favorites were The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O’Brian, Bat Masterson with Gene Barry, Have Gun Will Travel with Richard Boone and Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson. Oops, I forgot the best of them all – Maverick with James Garner.
Each one had their own catchy theme song of which I can sing or hum sections of today. That was part of the mystique. All of these characters were portrayed larger than life. This was before the
days of anti-hero realism so eloquently acted out by the likes of Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and their imitators.
I miss these type of shows because they were all thirty or sixty minute morality plays. There was a right and a wrong- nothing in between. You expected the bad guys to get punished and the heroes in the end to succeed admiring them even the more so.
In 1962, John Ford paid final homage to this type of storyline in the classic film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. It was a great elegy for a style of storytelling that held true to black and white, right and wrong.
By the time the 1960’s rolled into full force, the Old West had been overdone. The newer cowboy shows were a full hour and in color. Bonanza, The Virginian, The Big Valley, Little House on the Prairie, Daniel Boone were more stories about family and ethical decisions
rather than fighting Indians, stage coach robbers and bank bandits.
Probably the last successful long-running Old West show was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It was really a gimmick dressed up in 1800’s surroundings. Jayne Seymour played the title character of a woman who goes to post-Civil War Colorado to set up shop as a doctor.
No one watched it because they expected to see Cowboys and Indians and outlaws shoot ’em up. It was plainly a women’s soap opera that lasted for six years and more than 150 episodes ending in 1998.
Even in the movies, Clint Eastwood has mostly stopped making cowboy pictures. Kevin Costner has made an honest effort to bring great stories to the big screen. Every once in a while someone will make an oater but it ends up as a disguised remake of something
done much better the first time around.
I miss Brett Maverick saying, “It’s like my Pappy used to say..” And the urbane Bat Masterson hitting a bad guy over the head with his cane rather than distastefully shoot him. And Chuck Connors pull out his circumcised rifle with a stare at his opponent as if to say, “you still think you wanna start up with me?” And Matt Dillon say to Festus, “go get Doc”. And Ben Cartwright tell his sons, “boys, stop fighting. I have to go into Virginia City.” And Tonto say to the Lone Ranger, “what you mean,’We’, paleface?” when surrounded by Indians on the warpath.
Will the Western ever make a comeback? Or, in our post-911, politically correct world, does playing with guns and bullets while riding horses where no one can hold onto a cell phone and talk at the same time seem like ancient Rome? Well, pardner, time will tell.