There was a day on American television, believe it or not, when sitcoms literally did not exist. Nope. Instead, Pard’ner, there was an endless wagon trail of shows based on stories and lure from the great American West. Come with us now, as my sidekick, Dusty Carmean, sashays his way to Dodge City and beyond with a nostalgia look back at what it was like growing up with cowboys…
After WWII, two things saw a significant increase in production in the United States: children and television sets. The generation of “baby boomers” officially arrived from 1946-1964. In 1948, only 0.4% of homes had TV sets. By 1958, 83.2% of American households had a television set.
To fill a TV void for children’s viewing, Hollywood turned to westerns. The nation’s mythic past, as one writer put it, filled television screens with cowboys. Gradually, baby boomers made such programs the most frequently watched type of television show. By 1959, almost 30 primetime programs were westerns.
The deluge of westerns began with a character called Hopalong Cassidy (actor’s name: William Boyd) whose show made a weekly appearance. Hoppie (no joke, that’s what he was called) became the #7 show in the country. For increased income, products advertised by him, for kids, included: roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives. One million knives were sold in ten days. Even my dentist had a Hopalong Cassidy tooth care kit in his office. It had a toothbrush, tube of toothpaste, a badge, and picture of Mr. Cassidy in costume. Hopping on the cowboy show bandwagon for kids soon came The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. What kid could resist wanting to grow up to be a cowboy? Not me. I have the Halloween pictures to prove it.
Knowing a good idea when they repeat it, studios in Hollywood began producing “adult westerns” for television. Many kids’ fathers were war veterans and no doubt needed cowboys, too. 1955 saw even more success with the addition to TV schedules of Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Gunsmoke began its TV life (it had started as a radio program) with promotional advertisements made by John Wayne. On screen, The Duke said it was the first TV western he would feel comfortable to appear in. He was, by the way, never on the show. With exceptional characters, acting and scripts, Gunsmoke outlasted all TV westerns. It ran from 1955-1975 and broadcast 635 episodes. By 1959, seven primetime westerns were in the top ten TV show rankings. I did my part. I watched six of the seven.
Reacting to criticisms of too much violence on TV, Hollywood again altered some of its western fare. “Domestic westerns” began to appear. The most respected –and the first TV western broadcast in color– was Bonanza. The program followed the adventures of a father and his three adult sons, the Cartwrights, as they tended to their ranch, which was the size of Rhode Island. In their spare time they dealt with problems in the nearby town that went beyond the scope of local law enforcement. Bonanza ran for 14 years, was ranked in the top ten TV shows ten times, and was number one from 1964-67. Even my mother loved the show, just as she did Wagon Train.
After two decades, when westerns began to disappear from TV screens, how many had seen air time? No one can say for sure, but on Wikipedia I found a list of 189 westerns. Why were westerns so popular? I think part of it was a good idea whose time had come for programing. Hollywood deserves some credit. A second reason was the people who worked in the shows. Some talented people started out in westerns. For others, TV westerns added to their already successful careers. See the list below for names you may recognize.* Did I have a favorite show? Of course. Have Gun, Will Travel.** Did I have a list of shows to whom I pledged my loyal viewing? Yes. The list contained 15 shows.***
What were westerns’ effect on me? What can I say? I was a kid. I did my homework and then watched TV cowboys every night. I saw McQueen and Eastwood become stars. To this day, when I greet someone on the street, I say: “Howdy.”
* = Robert Altman, Amanda Blake, Richard Boone, James Coburn, Robert Culp, Clint Eastwood, Linda Evans, Peter Falk, Sam Fuller, James Garner, DeForrest Kelley (There was life before Star Trek), Martin Landau, Michael Landon, Steve McQueen, Burgess Meredith, Elizabeth Montgomery, Sam Peckinpah, Burt Reynolds, Gene Roddenberry, Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Weaver.
** = Have Gun, Will Travel; Plot line: Richard Boone played Paladin, a cowboy with a business card which read: Have Gun, Will Travel; it had a black chess knight on it; and, lastly, the words: Wire Paladin, San Francisco. He always dressed in black and had his gun in a black holster with a silver chess knight on it. He was a hired gun who was always a gentleman and preferred to settle disagreements by talk, if possible. As background, he was a Union cavalry officer who graduated from West Point. The show lasted 6 years and 225 episodes. Gene Roddenberry wrote some scripts, plus, Sam Peckinpah directed some episodes.
*** = Do any of these shows sound familiar? Bonanza, Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Hopalong Cassidy (I was real young for this one), Lawman, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger (its theme song was The William Tell Overture), Maverick, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Trackdown, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Westerner.
What a great roundup!