In the the late 1940s and 50s when television became popular, TV westerns quickly became a favorite past time for viewers. Examples include The Rifleman, Rawhide, The Roy Rogers Show and Maverick. 1959 was the peak of the TV western with a total of 26 shows on air.
During the 1960s, traditional western shows declined in popularity and new shows that combined western elements with other genres such as family drama, mystery thrillers, and crime drama grew into popularity. The evolution of the TV westerns continues to this day with shows such as Walker: Texas Ranger, Firefly, and Justified carrying the torch.
Here are five classic westerns that got the tumbleweed rolling.
1. The Lone Ranger (1949–1957)
Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!
Ignore that horrible film starring Johnny Depp and watch this show. Originally featured on radio, The Lone Ranger went on to TV and continued the adventures of the masked Texas Ranger and his friend Tonto, as they fought injustice wherever they went and and aided those in need. Each episode was full of action, and the interactions between the Ranger and Tonto conveyed their friendship excellently.
The Lone Ranger radio series also inspired a spin off called The Green Hornet (which also became a TV show) that depicted the son of the Lone Ranger's nephew Dan Reid Jr., who was also featured a few times on the television show.
2. Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)
This western drama is an adaptation of the best selling Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The show depicts the Ingalls family who live on a farm in Walnut Grove, Minnesota during the 1870s and 1880s. Several themes such as adoption, alcoholism, racism, and blindness were explored as well as subjects such as drug addiction, leukemia, prejudice, and rape, which featured in several different plot lines throughout the show’s run.
Despite it being a drama, Little House also had many comedic moments. Michael Landon who played the Ingalls patriarch Charles, directed and wrote many of the storylines for the show. In fact some of the stories he wrote were recycled plots from his time on Bonanza. For example, season two's "A Matter of Faith" was based on the Bonanza episode "A Matter of Circumstance"; and season eight's "He Was Only Twelve" was based on the Bonanza episode "He Was Only Seven".
3. Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
Another radio to TV show, this western drama take place in and around Dodge City, Kansas, during the settlement of the west, in the post-Civil War era.
The main character of the series is Marshal Matt Dillon, played by James Arness as he enforces law and order in the city. Accompanying Dillon on his adventures are his friends Doctor Galen "Doc" Adams (Milburn Stone), the town's physician, Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), owner of the Long Branch Saloon, and Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), Dillon's assistant.
Originally broadcast in black and white as a half-hour show, it eventually aired in color as an hour long show. The show remains the longest running prime time series of the 20th century as it ran for 20 consecutive seasons. Gunsmoke was an adult show and in its early years it featured more brutality and violence but later transitioned to focus more on social issues like racism and mental disability. The show shifted the dramatic burden from violent conflict to dramatic conflict.
4. Bonanza (1959-1973)
The second longest running western series was set around the 1860s and centered on the Cartwright family, who lived on their 600,000+ acre ranch called the Ponderosa near Virginia City, Nevada, bordering Lake Tahoe. Each week, viewers watched the adventures of the Cartwright family, led by the widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright and his three sons: Adam, Eric “Hoss”, and Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright.
The show differed from its counterparts as it focused more on the Cartwright family and how they cared for each other, their neighbors and strangers, and just causes. Bonanza also had the difficult job of being a period drama that attempted to confront and discuss contemporary social issues. Episodes addressed various issues such as the environment, substance abuse, domestic violence, illegitimate births, racism, anti-semitism, and much more.
5. The Big Valley (1965-1969)
Set in 19th century Stockton, in California’s Central Valley, the show focused on Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck), a family matriarch and widower to a wealthy California rancher and her four children.
Stanwyck’s refusal to portray Barkley as fragile was a controversial choice at the time, but it was a good decision and helped the show stand out from amongst its fellow westerns. After the murder of her husband six years prior, Stanwyck’s character becomes the owner and head of the Barkley ranch. She’s very proud of all of her children including her late husband’s illegitimate son, Heath, who she refers to as “my son.”
Victoria Barkley goes from being a refined elegant lady to a tough jean-clad cowgirl. The episodes she’s featured in were usually dramatic and hard hitting like “Down Shadow Street,” in whichshe was locked away in a lunatic asylum to prevent her from testifying as an eyewitness at a murder trial. In “Four Days to Furnace Hill,” she was taken prisoner by a prison wagon to replace a dead female convict, and in “Earthquake” she was trapped underground following a cave-in.
These TV westerns stand the tests of time and continue to engage viewers old and new.