The Western was perhaps the most popular genre on television in the 1950s — its opening years when families first gathered around a tiny screen flickering black and white images.
Westerns were distinctly American and reminded everyone of the country’s pioneer heritage as the early settlers moved westward to eventually tame the land from sea to shining sea.
Here are 10 of the best in family entertainment, followed by five especially tailored for kids, all in alphabetical order.
"Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973)
This series followed the adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his three sons: Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts), Eric "Hoss" Cartwright (Dan Blocker), and Joseph or "Little Joe" Cartwright, portrayed by Michael Landon, who later went on to produce and star in the “Little House on the Prairie” series.
"Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-2006)
Although shorter-lived than the Westerns of the 1950’s-1960s, “Deadwood” offers proof that the genre isn’t dead — despite its name.
“Deadwood” is factually-based, and covers the South Dakota community’s history from a camp to a town, and features a large ensemble cast centered on real-life Deadwood residents Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). The series eventually led to a full length HBO film, “Deadwood: The Movie”
"Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975)
This is the longest running Western on television, and centers around Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) in Dodge City, Kansas.
Here’s some trivia on the series: Arness’ brother was Peter Graves, who played Jim Phelps in the popular “Mission: Impossible” series. Burt Reynolds, who went on to star in numerous films, played blacksmith Quint Aspe. Dennis Weaver, Dillon’s sidekick Chester, also went on to star in the popular mystery-crime drama series “McCloud.”
"Have Gun Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-1963)
This series followed the adventures of an investigator and mercenary that went by the name “Paladin,” portrayed by Richard Boone. Working from his home base in San Francisco, he traveled throughout the west to right wrongs.
"Laramie" (NBC, 1959-1963)
This centered on the activities at the Sherman Ranch, a combination homestead and stage stop owned by brothers Slim and Andy Sherman, and managed by Jonesy (Hoagy Carmichael). The brothers inherited the Wyoming ranch after their father was murdered. It’s set in the 1870s when sympathies for both the North and South following the Civil War still ran high.
"Rawhide" (CBS, 1959-1966)
This was a popular, long-running series that provided the launch pad for the meteoric rise of its young co-star, Clint Eastwood, who played ram rod Rowdy Yates. The series showed the challenges encountered by the drovers in a cattle drive, led by trail boss Gil Favor (portrayed by Eric Fleming).
In the eighth and final season, Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates took over the trail boss’s responsibilities.
Music played a not-insignificant role in “Rawhide.” Popular singer Frankie Laine sang the opening and closing credits theme song, and the series even led to a song called “Rowdy,” perhaps the only one performed by Eastwood.
"The Rifleman" (ABC, 1958-1963)
The series starred Chuck Conners, who was a professional basketball and baseball player before his acting career. He portrayed rancher Lucas McCain who raised his son Mark, played by Johnny Crawford, in the the fictional town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory.
Although the series was set in the 1880s, single father McCain used a Winchester Model 1892 to protect himself, his son and his property. He modified the rifle to allow him to fire it each time he cycled the lever action.
"The Virginian" (NBC, 1962-1971)
Filmed in color, The Virginian was loosely based on “The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains,” a 1902 novel. It became television’s first 90-minute Western series, and starred James Drury, Doug McClure, and Lee J. Cobb.
“The Virginian” was set in Wyoming Territory from around 1890 to about 1898.
"Wagon Train" (NBC, 1957–1962; then ABC, 1962–1965)
The series depicted a large wagon train of settlers heading westward, led by wagon master Ward Bond later replaced upon his death by John McIntire.
What made the series especially popular is that a different film or TV star of the era played a starring role in the series for each episode. Examples include Ernest Borgnine, Bette Davis, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Lee Marvin and Joseph Cotten. They were each either members of the wagon train or townspeople the group encountered along their journey.
"Wanted: Dead or Alive" (CBS, 1958-1961)
This series launched the career of the late film actor, Steve McQueen, who played former Confederate soldier and bounty hunter Josh Randall. Like “The Rifleman’s” McCain, Randall’s weapon of choice was a modified Winchester Model 1892, this one with a shortened barrel and stock, thus allowing him to carry it at his side like a handgun.
Although Randall is successful at his trade, he’s not necessarily wealthy. A soft heart often prompts him to donate all or part of his bounties to someone more needy. When not chasing down criminals-at-large, he settles family disputes of people he meets along his travels, and helps free those unjustly jailed.
Saturday mornings weren’t just for cartoons. Kids also enjoyed watching Westerns on the small screen, tailored just for them — although many adults liked them also. In addition to the action and adventure, each episode often gave kids a moral to remember and live by. Here are Newsmax’s top five, again, in alphabetical order.
"The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" (ABC, 1954-1959)
This series followed the adventures of a young boy named Rusty and his German Shepard, Rin Tin Tin. The pair were adopted by soldiers at a fictional U.S. Cavalry post called Fort Apache, after Rusty was orphaned when his parents were killed during an Indian raid.
Except for the loss of his parents, Rusty led a life that was the envy of every American boy, and Rin Tin Tin was as much his protector as were the soldiers.
"The Gene Autrey Show" (CBS, 1950-1956)
Billed as “America’s favorite cowboy,” Autrey had already established a following as a singing cowboy on radio and the silver screen by the time he launched his TV career. Each week he assumed a different role — as rancher, then sheriff, then ranch hand — as he and his faithful horse Champion went from one adventure to another.
The show’s final season was in color, and when the series ended, “The Adventures of Champion” became a single-season spin-off.
"Hopalong Cassidy" (NBC, 1949-1954)
This starred William Boyd as Hopalong, and his horse Topper. His character was based on a series of short stories and novels written by Clarence E. Mulford.
Contrary to the general rule that “good guys wear white hats,” Cassidy was always dressed in black from head to foot — which contrasted with his white hair and white horse. The TV series was a natural progression from the 66 “Hoppy” movies that were produced. In June 1949, “Hopalong Cassidy” became the first network Western television series broadcast to America.
"The Lone Ranger" (ABC, 1949-1957)
This starred Clayton Moore as the “mysterious masked man” known as the Lone Ranger, and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, his faithful Indian companion. The pair traveled throughout the West to fight law-breakers and place them behind bars.
Not only did the series give kids their weekly fix of adventure, it also gave them a dose of culture. Its theme song was the closing movement of Gioacchino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” But if you mention that to any boomer he’ll correct you — it’s really the Lone Ranger song.
"The Roy Rogers Show" (NBC, 1951-1957)
This starred Roy Rogers, “King of the Cowboys,” who played a ranch owner, and his wife, Dale Evans, “Queen of the West,” who portrayed the owner of of the Eureka Café and Hotel in fictional Mineral City. Pat Brady added some comic relief as Roy’s sidekick and Dale’s cook.
In a departure from other Western programs, “The Roy Rogers Show” was set in mid-20th century America, with telephones and automobiles on display, including Brady’s cantankerous Jeep Nellybelle, which often had a mind of its own.
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