Cowboys…gotta love ‘em!
Toni V. Sweeney
He’s an icon…a symbol of America’s Old West…a representation of all that’s wild and free but adhering to a brand of justice as well as a creed all his own. Representative of the United States perhaps even more than the Minute Men. After all, it wasn’t George Washington who took his Wild West Show to Europe and dazzled kings and queens.
The cowboy was revered in song and novel even during his own time, and has continued to be so, beginning with Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) which is considered the “first great novel of the American Western Literature.” It’s also where the famous line “When you call me that, smile!” originated. With the adventure of movies and later television, his fame grew.
There were individuals from that era who became famous simply because they were cowboys. Real people now legendary…how many don’t know of Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, or Bat Masterson, or from the distaff side…Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane?
One of the first movies made was The Great Train Robbery (1903), considered a milestone in filmmaking because of its innovative camera work. The westerns that followed are too numerous to mention, from silents into talkies, television, and comic books. A good many novels by Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray were made into folms. Consider Riders of the Purple Sage, Shane, and The Virginian. We all remember that last scene from Shane, don’t we? Then, how about High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma.
For a while, television was dominated by the cowboy with series for both adult and children. The Lone Ranger was present, as was Fury. There were entertaining but juvenile ones such as Cowboy G-Men. Then…once again…there was The Virginian, famous for being the only 90-minute series on television, as well as the fantastic and hilariously satiric episodes of the Adventures of Brisco County Junior, which sent actor Bruce Campbell rocketing to fame. There was F Troop and Bonanza, Wagon Train and Laredo and Laramie. Even Disney got into the act with The Ballad of Andy Burnett, Texas John Slaughter, and Elfego Baca.
Of course, there was the most famous of them all, Gunsmoke, considered the first “adult” Western TV series, because it represented a truer accounting of Western life and the hero didn’t always get the girl or ride off into the sunset. Sometimes the hero actually got gunned down in the street. This landmark almost starred John Wayne as Marshal Dillon, but he opted out of the “small screen” for a newcomer named James Arness.
Matt Dillon and Paladin might’ve been Kings of the Western, riding back-to-back on Saturday nights, but Warner Brothers was the kings of the series. Almost every night contained a Warner Brothers series in the listings…from 77 Sunset Strip to Hawaiian Eye. They certainly held the title for most Westerns, too. There wasn’t a night of the week that one couldn’t see one of Warners’ cowboy heroes on the small screen.
Cheyenne (1955-1953) – Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, a cowboy raised by the Cheyennes.
Bronco (1958-1962) Ty Hardin as Bronco Layne, a former Confederate officer from Texas, now a cowboy.
Sugarfoot (1957-1961) – remake of a Will Rogers’ movie, with Will Hutchins as Tom Brewster, an Easterner who comes to Oklahoma territory and studied law by correspondence. He was called “Sugarfoot” because that designation was even lower than a “tenderfoot.”
Colt .45 (1957-1960) – Wayde Preston as Christopher Colt, as an Old West pistol salesman. In 1959, Donald May took over as Sam Colt, Jr., cousin of Christopher.
Lawman (1958 – 1962) – John Russell as Marshal Dan Troop and Peter Brown as Deputy Johnny Mackay, in Laramie, Wyoming.
The Alaskans (1959 – 1960) – Roger Moore as Silky Harris and Jeff York as Reno McKee, a pair of Skagway, Alaskan conmen out to scam as many Yukon-bound travelers as they could.
And, of course, those best-loved of all, the Mavericks (1957-1962).
This series consisted of a family of Texas gamblers. There was Brett Maverick, the original and titular character, his brother Bart, English Cousin Beau, and father “Pappy” and his brother, Uncle Bentley. During one season when there was a dispute going on between the stars, a new character in the person of another brother, Brent, was introduced but for such a short time, he’s barely remembered now. The Maverick franchise won fame for its stars and engendered several made for TV movies.
No matter how many series, novels, or movies there are, they all embody one thing…the allegory of the struggle between good and evil in a land where a man could forget his past and start over, but sometimes that past would catch up to him and then he had to make a choice.
The cowboy has become a symbol of a special kind of nobility and freedom. If there is truly a “Noble Savage” then the cowboy could be considered his counterpart.
Toni V. Sweeney generally writes scifi/fantasy but she’s also written her share of Westerns, all published by Class Act Books:
NEBRASKA: Vengeance from Eden
NEBRASKA: Walk the Shadow Trail
The Man from Tipperary
The Cattle Baron’s Kid
The Sunday Man