In television’s early days, Westerns ran the ranch. It made perfect sense for programmers: there were plenty of western films that could be acquired to telecast for reasonable prices, and original programs could be produced cheaply and easily. As a result, the 1950’s featured plenty of notable Western heroes, some fictional and others taken from the pages of history. A good example of the latter category was Wild Bill Hickok, a long-running western hit with a historical basis.
Wild Bill Hickok, also known in some areas as The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, was loosely based on the real-life exploits of James Butler Hickok. Mr. Hickok had held jobs as a Union scout during the Civil War, a rider for the Pony Express, a scout for Colonel Custer, and as the marshal of Abilene, Kansas. Thus, there was plenty of material for the show’s writers to transform into tight half-hour television adventures.
Guy Madison topped the show as Will Bill Hickok. Although historians claimed that Madison was a little too “movie-star handsome” to play the rugged adventurer, he acquitted himself well in the role of Wild Bill and won many a fan during the show’s lengthy stint on the air. Madison also benefited from a fun sidekick named Jingles. Andy Devine, host of the beloved kid’s show Andy’s Gang, played the bumbling but lovable sidekick. Although Jingles mainly acted as a comic foil for Will Bill, he was also surprisingly resourceful in moments of danger, thanks to his abilities as a master of disguise.
Each week, Will Bill and Jingles rode around on their horses (Buckshot and Joker, respectively) as they stared down the many dangers that frontier heroes faced in the Old West. The show became an instant hit with the Western fanatics, enjoying a successful first run that continued through 1956. During this time, Madison and Devine also did a concurrent radio version of the show. Although it began its life as a syndicated show, reruns of the show were later telecast on both CBS and ABC until 1958. Episodes of the show were also re-edited into feature length form and have played on television for years under titles like Two-Gun Marshal and The Secret Of Outlaw Flats.
Although westerns aren’t as wildly popular as they once were, Wild Bill Hickok will always be remembered as one of the classics of the genre. After all, Will Bill’s long-term success truly proved that he was “The bravest, strongest, fightingest U.S. Marshal in the whole west!”
USA / Syndicated – CBS – ABC – Screen Gems / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 1951-1958
Guy Madison as U.S. Marshal James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok
Andy Devine as Jingles B. Jones