By the 1970’s, the television western began to fade into the sunset as legendary, long-running westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke quietly disappeared from the airwaves. Just the same, the popularity of this genre never died out completely, often returning in the form of miniseries or television movies. A great example is How The West Was Won, which progressed from television film to miniseries and became popular enough to earn its own prime time slot. It found favor with western fans near and far and provided another legendary role for Gunsmoke’s “Marshall Dillon,” James Arness.
How The West Was Won took its inspiration from the Oscar-winning 1962 film of the same name. The story made its first transition to television as a TV-movie called the The Macahans, which told the story of old settler Zeb Macahan’s return home to Virginia to help his brother’s family move West. Along the way, they ran into a variety of obstacles that included the outbreak of the Civil War. This drama drew big ratings from television western fans and inspired a follow-up miniseries the next year, How The West Was Won. When the miniseries became a hit, ABC ordered up a limited 20-hour series for the winter of 1978.
Like the television film and miniseries that preceded it, How The West Was Won starred western legend James Arness as ex-Cavalry scout Zeb Macahan. After his brother and his wife were killed, Zeb became a surrogate father to their four orphaned children: Luke, Laura, Josh and Jessie. The kids’ varying stages of maturity presented different crises: Josh and the tomboyish Jessie suffered the growing pains typical to teenagers, while Laura was ready to move into womanhood. But it was Luke who presented the biggest problems. He was an Army deserter who had killed three men in self-defense and became a fugitive from the law as a result.
To help raise this troubled brood, Zeb often turned to the children’s aunt, Molly Culhane. In between these subplots, the show dealt with expected western elements like the uneasy relationships between settlers and Indians and the problems presented by nature (i.e. an attack by a swarm of bees).
The 1978 show did quite well, especially with the legions of fans who were glad to see Arness back in the saddle as a western hero. The show’s fans also loved its realism, which extended to location shooting in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Southern California. The next year, ABC followed the 1978 show with a series of 11 two-hour television films that continued the saga of the Macahans as they founded a ranch in the Tetons and settled down to raise horses. Sample episodes included “The Forgotten,” in which Luke and Josh discovered a soldier who didn’t know the Civil War is over, and “China Girl,” which told the story of pregnant Chinese immigrant who was rejected by her family.
After the 1979 television films, How The West Was Won ended its run. No attempts have been made to revive the saga of the Macahans since then, but Arness and co-star Bruce Boxleitner have worked together since then in television westerns like Red River and Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice. Meanwhile, How The West Was Won periodically returns as a rerun, and wherever it reappears, it is eagerly viewed by western fans who appreciate its epic flavor of adventure.
USA / NBC – MGM – Mantley / 1×124 minute episode 2×150 minute episodes 4×50 minute episodes / Broadcast from February 6, 1977 to February 14, 1977, February 12, 1978 to May 21, 1978 and then January 15, 1979 to April 23, 1979
Producers: John G. Stephens, Jeffrey Hayden Albert S. Ruddy / Executive Producer: John Mantley
James Arness as Zeb Macahan
Eva Marie Saint as Kate Macahan
Bruce Boxleitner as Luke Macahan
Kathryn Holcomb as Laura Macahan
Vicki Schreck as Jessie Macahan
William Kirby Cullen as Josh Macahan
Fionnuala Flanagan as Molly Culhane
Don Murray as Jim Anderson
Anthony Zerbe as Martin Grey
Richard Kiley as Timothy Macahan
Royal Dano as Elam Hanks
Brit Lind as Erica Hanks
Todd Lookinland as Joshua Hanks
John Dehner as Bishop Benjamin
Jack Elam as Cully Madigan
Morgan Woodward as Henry Coe
Richard Angarola as Shoshine Chief
Woody Strode as Arapaho Chief
John Reilly as Jeremiah Taylor
Richard Basehart as Colonel Flint
Elyssa Davalos as Hilary Grant
Ricardo Montalban as Satangkai
Lloyd Bridges as Sheriff Orville Grant
Brian Keith as Gen. Lee Stonecipher
Tim Matheson as Curt Grayson
Cameron Mitchell as Coulee John
William Shatner as Captain Harrison
Harris Yulin as Deek Peasley
Slim Pickens as Tap Henry
Ivan Naranjo as One Wolf
Ralph Brannen as Otter Belt
Vera Miles as Beth
Ramon Bieri as General Sheridan
Jared Martin as Frank Grayson
Kay Lenz as Doreen
Morgan Woodward as Henry Coe
Eric Braden as Francis Britten
Narrator: William Conrad.