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The TV Western—Wanted Alive and Well

March 6, 2013


I love westerns. I especially dig all the old TV westerns from the 50s and 60s. I’ve written a short story that’s kind-of-sort-of a western. (I’ll be glad when Craig Schindler and I finish work on our website and we can start sharing the stories and artwork we’ve created.) I did a drawing of what I imagine the main character looks like. It’s pictured above. I’ll tease this story more in the future, but right now, I thought I’d give a few paragraphs of appreciation to a genre of entertainment that has also been an influence on me.

When I was a kid, westerns dominated the TV listings each week. My father ruled the remote control. That was me—I was his remote control. I knew the weekly TV schedule by heart and was responsible for getting up and changing the channel and making sure we never missed any of our favorite shows. My father was a big fan of westerns and, as I sat by his side, I became a fan through osmosis.

My favorite TV westerns included Have Gun Will Travel, Cheyenne, Maverick, Rawhide, The Rifleman and The High Chaparral. I literally could go on and on naming them all, because there was something about each series that I loved. I dug Steve McQueen packing a sawed-off rifle (he called the mare’s leg) strapped to his leg in a custom holster. I thrilled to the daring-do of James West and found I enjoyed steam punk wayyyyyy before it had a name. Paladin’s chess knight symbol was equal parts cool and silly, but I always gave the edge to cool. Lucas McCain wielded, what basically was, a Wild West version of a semi-automatic rifle with which he decimated bad guys each and every week. (In case you’re 50s-and-60s-era-TV-western challenged—Steve McQueen played Josh Randall in Wanted Dead or Alive, James West was the dashing secret agent answerable only to President Ulysses S. Grant in The Wild, Wild West, Paladin was the man who, each week, presented the card that read “Have Gun Will Travel” and Lucas McCain was The Rifleman.)

In westerns of that era, the good guy code of ethics was in force and as binding as the Cartwright curse. Fans will remember that during Bonanza’s fourteen-year run, any woman with whom Adam, Hoss or Little Joe fell in love with was dead by the end of the episode insuring that the Cartwright brothers stayed perpetually bachelors and therefore kept the status quo pristine and unaltered.

The classic TV western came to an end in 1975 with the cancelation of Gunsmoke. As the years went by, only a handful of westerns of note popped up. Among my favorites were Paradise (1988 to 1991) staring Lee Horsley (a special note here, folks—If you ever get a chance to hear Lee Horsley read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, do it. You’ll be real glad ya did), Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993 to 1998) staring the ageless beauty that is Jane Seymour, The Young Riders (1989 to 1992) starred veteran actor Anthony Zerbe, and newcomers Stephen Baldwin and Josh Brolin as Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok respectively (this highly fictionalized series about young Pony Express riders lasted about two-and-a-half years longer than the actual Pony Express did).

But what cowboy-boot-wearing offerings are out there today? I’m so glad you asked. High on my list are two modern-day westerns and one set in the classic time period. The first is undeniably the best—Justified. When the main character Raylon Givens (played masterfully by Timothy Oliphant) recalled that when he was a kid, and got home from school, he watched reruns of Have Gun Will Travel on TV, why I wanted to get up and kiss the glass surface of my Sony 52” TV screen. Each week, western fans like me tune into the latest adventures of the tall, strapping Deputy U.S. Marshall and hope that the writers will figure out a way to get Rayon into a fast-draw altercation. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I unleash a rapid-fire series of fist pumps.

Longmire stars the gruff-voiced Robert Tayor as Sheriff Walt Longmire whose jurisdiction is Absaroka County, Wyoming. Also in the cast is the uberhot-and-wonderful Katee Sackhoff, who turned in her Battlestar Galactica togs for a deputy sheriff uniform. Lou Diamond Philips plays Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne who is Walt’s best friend, and for some reason incapable of using contractions, as if his character could slip seamlessly into a production of Guys and Dolls or some other Damon Runyon creation.

Then there’s Hell on Wheels, an uneven western set during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Anson Mount, as Cullen Bohannon, is the suitably macho leading man who looks, most of the time, like an unmade bed. Colm Meaney (Chief O’brien for you Star Trek: The Next Generation fans. Oh, wait, if you are a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, then you already knew that) who, as the character Thomas Durant, is the guy you love to hate. Christopher Heyerdahl plays one of the wackiest villains in all of TV westernland. The Swede, as he is called, is to Cullen Bohannon as the Joker is to Batman. I kid you not (and if you watched the Hell on Wheels episode in question and are familiar with the Batman, A Death in the Family story arc, you know exactly what I mean). Last, but oh so definitely not least, is the deliciously beautiful Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell. Can one use the one word “Zowie!” to describe this actress? Yes. I believe the answer is yes. I’ll say it again—yes.

It seems the TV western is alive and well and living in various incarnations, both modern-day as well as traditional time and place. This genre will never ever again dominate the listings like it once did back in the day, but that’s okay. As long as there are still shows that feature dudes in cool-looking cowboy hats who utter words “penned” by writers who know what the hell they’re doing, I couldn’t be happier.

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  1. I am a fan like you my friend and I hope as long as we have westerns we continue to have heroes, both male and female, who give us reason to respect our past and give use strength to stand up and fight for what we feel is right. Long live the west and freedom of spirit.

  2. Lisa permalink

    Your Jane Seymour reference conjures up memories of Christopher Reeve leaning against the wall, sweating under her portrait. Bleh. (good memories, eh Ernie?)

  3. Move ’em on, head ’em up
    Head ’em up, move ’em on
    Move ’em on, head ’em up

    Cut ’em out, ride ’em in
    Ride ’em in, cut ’em out
    Call ’em out, ride ’em in

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