For years, sprawling Westerns had been popular in the cinema, making rugged, plain-speaking actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood huge stars. During the Golden Age of Television — the early 1940s through 1961 — and into the 1970s, Westerns were produced for the small screen with success. In 1959 alone more than 30 different Westerns were on the television schedule.
Viewers idolized the gritty and romantic version of the American West with its portrayal of the loner who faces the world by himself and, mostly, comes up victorious. “[Westerns] captured that American myth, keeping it going and keeping it alive,” says actor Adam West. Beyond entertainment, these shows presented the idea of duality: That good and evil exist on the same plane and that most of the time good will prevail, but not always. Westerns helped break down rigid societal racial and gender roles. The popular show “High Chaparral” subtly explored the groundbreaking idea that Mexicans, Anglos and Native Americans all have a place in the American tapestry. “The Big Valley” tackled issues of feminism and featured Victoria Barkley, played by Barbara Stanwyck, as a smart, headstrong widow who presided over the Barkley ranch. Westerns faded in popularity as grittier, more urban crime dramas became standard fare in the late 1970s and 80s, but these pioneering Westerns left an indelible impression on American audiences that still informs our identities.
The wildly popular “Gunsmoke” began as a radio drama before it was adapted to television in 1952. Led by a physically imposing actor named James Arness, who played U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon, the ensemble cast came into our living rooms for 20 seasons, from 1955 to 1975. The show was set in Dodge City, Kansas, as the American West was actively being settled. Arness played Dillon as a gentle, fair lawman who opted for violence only when necessary.
A nontraditional Western, “Bonanza” featured Ben Cartwright, played by actor Lorne Greene, as a widowed father and ranch owner trying to advise his three sons, played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon. While most Westerns dealt with problems of lawlessness and good versus evil, this show was more preoccupied with the relationships between the Cartwright men. “Bonanza” was also a launching pad for Michael Landon, who within three years was writing scripts for the show. A few seasons later the eager Landon began directing “Bonanza” episodes, too. When Bonanza ended in 1973, Landon created his own television hit, “Little House on the Prairie.”
“The Big Valley”
This pioneering program graced television screens for four seasons in the 1960s, and brought with it one of the first strong women characters to a lead role: Barbara Stanwyck playing matriarch Victoria Barclay. At a time when most women played deferential roles on television, Stanwyck portrayed a hard-bargaining woman who tries to keep her three sons and daughter in line. This series also launched the careers for two young actors: Linda Evans, who would later star in “Dynasty,” and Lee Majors, who starred in the “The Six Million Dollar Man.”