How The West Was Won – When Western’s dominated the TV landscape



In the late 1950’s on American TV the Western was king with seven out of the top ten shows being cowboy related. The old films of Hopalong Cassidy were amongst the first to be dusted down for TV with their popularity the networks soon realised they should be making their own westerns, amongst the first were The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger, clean cut and square jawed and far too heroic for their own good.

It took until 1955 for a proper adult western to appear and that was the long running Gunsmoke. Big John Wayne was approached to star in this but turned it down, instead telling the producers that his pal James Arness would be perfect for the role. Gunsmoke soon became one of the top rated shows on TV and opened the gates for lots of others too with the likes of Cheyanne (a show which made ample use of stock footage from old Warner westerns), Have Gun Will Travel, the tongue in cheek Maverick and Wanted Dead or Alive (which starred a young Steve McQueen).

Then along came along a Western series with an epic scope. Called Wagon Train the series followed the fortunes of early pioneers crossing the Great Plains in the 1860’s. One of the most realistic of shows was Sam Peckinpah’s The Westerner full of no good killers with no redeeming features, this show was just a bit too realistic for the public.

Westerns Bonanza

The cast of Bonanza featured a young Michael Landon and Lorne Greene.

By the early sixties the western had taken over TV with 31 shows appearing in one season and it seemed that their appeal with the public was beginning to wane a little too and the networks were starting to realise too that the teenage and early adult proportion of the viewers were preferring to watch sitcoms and so the Western began to lose its way, although there was still space in the schedules for one or two classics such as Bonanza which began in 1959, 1965’s The Big Valley and the High Chaparral in 1967 but all of these could be called Domestic westerns with action centering around the homelife of the characters involved.

By the 1970’s there were only two western series of any note thorughout the entire decade, the tongue in cheek Alias Smith and Jones and the somewhat esoteric Kung Fu, since then there have only been occasional attempts to redo the western such as a revival of The Magnificent Seven and 1980’s mini-series Lonesome Dove and more recently genre lover Kevin Costner making the superb Hatfield and McCoys for The History Channel.

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