Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TV Westerns and the 1959 Emmy Awards

The three top rated prime time television programs in the 1958-1959 season were Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun - Will Travel. If you were not in the mood for a western, it was best not to turn on your t.v. because you were sure to run into a marshal or a bounty hunter or a rancher. The big three networks (remember ABC, CBS and NBC?) gave you a selection of westerns every night of the week.

Sunday: Maverick, Lawman, Colt .45
Monday: The Texan, The Restless Gun, Tales of Wells Fargo
Tuesday: Cheyenne/Sugarfoot/Bronco, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Rifleman, The Californians
Wednesday: Wagon Train, Bat Masterson
Thursday: Zorro, The Rough Riders, Yancy Derringer, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, Jefferson Drum
Friday: The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Tombstone Territory, Buckskin, Man Without a Gun, Rawhide
Saturday: Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun - Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Cimarron City
Syndicated: Death Valley Days

The Emmy Awards have always had a fluid nature to deal with trends and at their 11th awards ceremony, for the first and only time in its history, they presented an award for Best Western Series. The award is particularly gratifying for fans of a genre that is generally dismissed when award time rolls around. Let's have a look at the five nominees.

Gunsmoke (1955-1975) was the senior member of the pack in the fourth of its 20 season run. Created by Norman Macdonnell and John Meston as a radio program in 1952, the first "adult" western brought to life stories of lawman Marshal Matt Dillon played by James Arness bringing law and order to the wild cow town of Dodge City.

Matt agonized over the job that had to be done and found solace with his "family". Saloon gal/later owner Kitty Russell was played by the vibrant Amanda Blake.

Curmudgeonly, yet caring "Doc" Adams was played by movie veteran Milburn Stone. Dennis Weaver scored a big hit with fans as Chester Goode. Chester was a sort of unofficial deputy who fretted about his friend Mister Dillon. He was easy with gossip and just as quick to help whenever trouble arose. In Dodge City there was trouble around every corner.

The fourth season found Matt suspended from duty on charges of murder in Matt for Murder, Matt as a whodunnit buster in The Patsy, and Matt opposing a crooked judge in Letter of the Law. We learned more about Kitty's background in Kitty's Rebellion and lived through the unthinkable in Doc Quits.

Our second nominee, Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-1963), was in its second season at Emmy time. If you are going to write about a Knight of the Plain, well how about a genuine Paladin. Sam Rolfe's so named gun (and brains) for hire was a brilliant and tough man played by a talented and charismatic actor. In a television universe of affable, good looking cowboys, Richard Boone stood alone. Not the most handsome of men, he carried himself like God's gift and, by golly, didn't the guest star ladies all go for him! Where there were dozens of earnest cowpokes willing to lend a stranger a helping hand, Paladin could make you feel like a skunk for hiring him.

The second season found our hero dealing with Comanches, Apaches, drought, angry mobs, shady mine claims, woman's suffrage, feuds, hidden treasure and Oscar Wilde. Nothing was beyond his capabilities. The series also made the transition to radio in 1958 and lasted until 1960 starring John Dehner.

Maverick creator Roy Huggins came up with this winning formula by turning the standard western on its ear. His earlier creation, Cheyenne, featured the loner who travels from town to town and finds himself calming troubled waters.

The Maverick brothers Bret and Bart, the perfectly teamed James Garner and Jack Kelly, were a couple of gamblers who were anything but loners, with their own humorous code and a way with the ladies. Of course, sometimes the ladies got the better of the lads, but it caused them no soul searching. The second season saw such classic episodes as Shady Deal at Sunny Acres wherein every good looking con artist whoever crossed paths with the Mavericks got together to help Bret out of a jam, and the priceless Gunsmoke spoof written by Marion Hargrove (See Here, Private Hargrove), Gun-Shy.


Developed by Sam Peckinpah and in its debut season, The Rifleman (1958-1963) told the story of rancher Lucas McCain, widowed father to son Mark, trying to raise his son with strong values of right and wrong. Rancher McCain just happened to be an extraordinarily fine shot with his Winchester and, unfortunately, trouble seemed drawn to their town of North Fork often putting Lucas and/or Mark in harm's way.

Chuck Connors, co-star the same year in William Wyler's The Big Country, starred as Lucas and young Johnny Crawford, nominated for a supporting actor Emmy (losing to Gunsmoke's Dennis Weaver), played Mark.

Lucas was intent on raising Mark to be strong and sure, yet tolerant and open-minded. He was ably assisted by a family of townsfolk including former alcoholic lawman Micah Torrence played by veteran Paul Fix and shopkeeper Hattie Denton played by Hope Summers.

Wagon Train (1957-1965) was another rating topper in its second season. Ward Bond (featured player in every movie ever made!) found stardom as Major Seth Adams, the wagon master. The gruff Major Adams inspired confidence in viewers and in the people he led from Missouri to California. Along those treacherous trails, we learned the stories of the guest stars.

Handsome actor/singer Robert Horton was trail scout Flint McCullough, an introspective man who could handle the romance and the action that kept the show and those wagons moving.

Stuntmen turned actors, Frank McGrath played put upon cook Charlie Wooster and Terry Wilson played scout and second-in-command Bill Hawks. These two actors were the constant through the program's years on the air.

The second season featured such episodes and guest stars as Lou Costello's final screen appearance in The Tobias Jones Story, Jane Wyman in The Dr. Willoughby Story, Rhonda Fleming in The Jennifer Churchill Story, Sessue Hayakawa in The Sakee Ito Story, Anne Baxter in The Kitty Angel Story and Bette Davis in The Ella Lindstrom Story.

The May 6th, 1959 ceremony saw the only Emmy awarded for Best Western Series going to Maverick, the show that was created to spoof the standard western. Who knew that blue-ribbon panels had an appreciation for irony?

Thanks to DVDs, specialty channels, and the internet, many classic television westerns are available for audiences today. They not only provide a nostalgic treat for some but are a welcome alternative to over-the-top crime dramas, souped-up game shows, and trashy celeb fests that currently populate the airwaves.

Sadly, season DVD sets of the magnificent Maverick are still a far-off dream.*

* That far-off dream came true in May 2012 with the release of Maverick: The Complete First Season on DVD.  Now we just have to wait for the rest of the series!


  1. Hopefully, the fact Cheyenne made it to DVD is a glimmer of hope that Maverick will follow suit (eventually and legitimately), as both were Warner Brothers productions. (The "Gun-Shy" episode is hilarious!)

    Just think: in addition to these network offerings, older western movies and TV shows (like Hopalong Cassidy and The lone Ranger) were also playing during this TV season! That's more westerns than anyone will find on the Starz Westerns channel today!

    Of what I've seen of Gunsmoke, the b&w shows are more interesting, and I like Chester more than Festus. Have Gun, Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive are very good for half-hour shows!

    Fun post, Caftan Woman!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'll keep fanning that glimmer of hope for a "Maverick" DVD.

    I am a fan of the later "Gunsmoke" episodes and I hope you won't give up on them. The producers, Philip Leacock and John Mantley keenly felt a duty to uphold the "Gunsmoke" legacy. Festus might grow on you.

    Time to go back to the mirror and practice my Hopalong Cassidy smile.

  3. Maverick and the Rifleman were musts for me. I didn't realize that I was watching reruns but it didn't matter. I loved the guest stars those shows had. I once met Chuck Connors at a gas station. Very cool.

  4. I knew there were a lot of TV Westerns in the '50s, but that lineup for a single week is truly amazing!!

    Ah, MAVERICK, my favorite TV show ever. I fell in love with reruns as a teenager and over the years had the good fortune to meet both James Garner and Jack Kelly twice. Kelly, in fact, became the mayor of a neighboring city here in CA. They were/are both lovely men offscreen as well as on. Thanks for a wonderful tribute to the show along with the TV Western in general.

    Best wishes,

  5. Brian, when I was a young 'un, it didn't matter or occur to me either that I was watching reruns. Those familiar faced guest stars are a treat.

    Hey, I can say that I know a guy who met Chuck Connors at a gas station. Very cool.

  6. Laura, thanks for sharing. The eternal question for "Maverick" fans - Bart or Brett? Brett or Bart? - and the obvious answer is - Both!

  7. Fun to learn about the tv westerns of the 1950s. My favourites came along in the sixties. Bonanza, The Virginian and The Big Valley.
    I knew Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley long before I was aware of her amazing movie career.

  8. Yes, the quality western continued well into the 60s, novabreeze. Aren't we lucky?

  9. What a great post! I love old TV westerns. I also like the b/w Gunsmoke episodes better, but I love Festus. The "family" was such an intriguing unit, and I wonder if this was the first time friends and colleagues were substituted for the traditional family on TV.

    Rifleman one of the best, too. Good relationship between father and son. Too bad the town doctor was played by so many people. I liked Edgar Buchanan at the earlier episodes.

    Cheyenne, impossibly handsome guy who owned just two shirts, (but never seemed to ride the same horse) and seems like all these rough shoot-em-ups had messages of tolerance more than what we see on TV today.

  10. Thanks, Jacqueline.

    " seems like all these rough shoot-em-ups had messages of tolerance more than what we see on TV today."

    I really believe that most of the values that have been of actual help to me in life came from watching the western shows. At an impressionable age I saw stories of perseverance, loyalty and tolerance and they stuck.

  11. I was 6 years old when Have Gun Will Travel was on -- I thought Paladin was the most masculine, cool guy I had ever seen. He is still right up there for me! Netflix has the episodes available, and I've been watching some. What a man!

  12. Here's a vote for Festus over Chester. Loved the by-play between him and "Doc". I think the 1 hours B&W's are the best, but there's a great color episode with Srother Martin that's one of my favorites: "Island in the Desert".

    Wish I could see more of James Garner in Maverick - "Gun shy" sounds fun. Great post, Caftan.

  13. ClassicBecky, once one of those TV cowboys makes an impression on your heart it lasts forever.

  14. rcocean, I am of a like mind concerning "Island in the Desert". Strother Martin and Ken Curtis were superb.

  15. I'm a a fan of THE RIFLEMAN and MAVERICK, but my fave of these shows was the fabulous HAVE GUN--WILL TRAVEL. My wife and I watched the first two seasons on DVD and it holds up incredibly well. Yes, Richard Boone is excellent and his character is one-of-a-kind, but the scripts (by the likes of Gene Roddenberry) are very strong, too.

  16. Rick29, you are so right. It starts with the words. A strong script makes a show timeless. Long live Paladin!



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