Recently, Salon had a list of what they considered TV's Greatest Western. It was a Top Ten list with some entries that I felt didn't belong because they didn't take place in the old West (McCloud and Firefly). Also, I feel that the list should have only included regular series and left out the mini-series, Lonesome Dove. They could have also included Centennial, The Sacktetts or those Kenny Rogers' Gambler movies.
So after reading that, I feel inclined to give you my list of my 15 favorite TV Westerns of the past. I'm going to include the shows I have watched thanks to DVD or reruns, so some of the more recent shows will not be included. Besides this is a "retro" sight (for the most part).
1. Gunsmoke (1955-1975): The king of the adult TV Westerns came from radio and went on to be one of TV longest running shows. Marshal Matt Dillon, Chester, Miss Kitty and Doc, along with Quint, Dooley and Festus became icons of the TV Western.
2. The Virginian (1962-1971): Based on the Owen Wister novel, The Virginian was the closest thing to a big screen "Big Sky"-style Western on TV every week. In color with great on-location scenery, good scripts, a big orchestral theme song by Percy Faith and 90 minutes long episodes, The Virginian was actually the third most successful TV Western behind Bonanza, yet I place it second for its effort. The last season, renamed The Men from Shilo, left the "Big Sky" Western-style behind for a "spaghetti Western"-style complete with facial hair, dusters, wide brimmed hats, an animated title sequence and Ennio Morricone music.
3. Bonanza (1959-1973): First color Western and the second most successful TV Western.
4. The Wild Wild West (1965-1969): If Paladin was the Western version of the literary James Bond, James T. West (played by Robert Conrad) was the Western version of the movie James Bond. He had exploding buttons, hidden Derringer in his sleeve and megalomaniac enemies. Paved the way for the steampunk literary genre movement of the 1990s.
5. Have Gun-Will Travel (1957-1963): If Matt Dillon was the Phillip Marlow of the Old West, Paladin was the first James Bond of the Old West. Based on the Ian Fleming novel description of Bond, Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow created a Western hero that was different than other TV Western heroes of the day. Paladin was dressed in all black while working and wore a tux at his home in the San Fransisco Hotel Carlton. He was a West Point grad who quoted Shakespeare, Socrates, Keats and Shelley. He carried business cards and charged a fee for his services. The business cards and his holster both had a chess knight on them. He saved Oscar Wilde's life, hunted a Sasquatch in Colorado, man-eating tigers in India and fought ninjas. The opening music was by Bernard Hermann and the closing theme was by country singer Johnny Western.
6. Rawhide (1959-1966): Besides featuring the first African-American cowboy, played by Raymond St. Jacques, this show is best known for a great theme song by Frankie Laine and Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates.
7. Kung Fu (1972-1975): With Alias Smith & Jones, Kung Fu was the last successful show of the original wave TV Westerns. David Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk searching the Old West for his half brother Danny Cain. Caine didn't need a gun because he was a master of martial arts. First Asian hero of a Western.
8. Alias Smith & Jones (1971-1973): A hip comedy Western about two Kansas long-haired outlaws trying to achieve amnesty while still being wanted from the law. Inspired by the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Love that country-rock incidental music and the film edit that made Kid Curry/Thad Jones (Ben Murphy) look like the fastest gun in the West.
9. Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961): Steve McQueen played a bounty hunter. Nuff said!
10. Maverick (1957-1962): One of the first "comedy" Westerns featuring an anti-Western hero. Lazy, cowardly, smart-mouthed gambler played by James Garner. His brother, Jack Kelly, and Southern cousin, played Roger Moore, were just as bad. The show even poked fun at other Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
11. The Lone Ranger (1949-1958): The "Masked Man" and "his faithful Indian companion" rode from radio to TV to become the first Western produced for TV. A syndication effort in the 70s and a toy line by Gabriel introduced The Lone Ranger to Generation X.
12. Big Valley (1965-1969): Other than Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Big Valley is the only Western to feature promanent female characters getting involved in the action. Many have dismissed Big Valley as a Bonanza knock-off, however, Big Valley seems to be more mature. Victoria Barkely (Barbara Stanwick) lives on a big ranch with her three sons, preppy lawyer Jared (Richard Long), hot-headed ranch foreman Nick (Peter Breck), baby Eugene (Charles Briles, who disappeared after the first season) and sexy daughter, Audra (Linda Evans). Add to this group Heath (Lee Majors), "the Bastard" son of Victoria's husband, who spends much of the show fighting with half-brother Nick or coming very close to making out with half-sister Audra or beating up the bad guy who tore Audra's blouse. I'm not sure but I bet this was the first TV show to feature the use of the word "bastard." Victoria is probably the only TV mom to be handy with a gun.
13. Wagon Train (1957-1965): The only TV Western than can claim a connection to legendary Western movie director John Ford. Wagon Train was inspired by a film called The Wagonmaster, which like Wagon Train, starred Ward Bond. Ford also directed one episode. The show even managed to continue with on after Ward Bond's death and Robert Horton left in a dispute with producers, with John McIntyre and Robert Fuller taking over. The real focus of the shows were rarely Bond or Horton (pictured), but the major guest star of the week.
14. Cheyenne (1955-1963): This was the first hour long dramatic TV series, as well as the first hour long Western. Clint Walker played Cheyenne Bodie, "a tall, handsome stranger" who traveled from town to town helping others. There was an obvious sexual undercurrent to this early entry into the "adult" Western boom of the late 50s. Cheyenne had a knack for attracting two women per show, probably because he was also the first man on TV to be shirtless most of the time.
15. The Rifleman (1958-1963): Chuck Conners plays Lucas McCain, the fastest man with a rifle in the West, who prefers to raise his young son and tend to his ranch. The Rifleman helped pave the way for the "family-oriented" Westerns such as Little House on the Prairie and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which focused more on a moral or message than action. The interesting thing is that The Rifleman was created by Sam Peckinpah, best known for violent "cutting edge" Westerns of the late 60s and 70s. Conners character was the first single parent on TV.
Some thing I wanted to point out with this list is that while many older people frequently lament the disappearance of the Western from TV as "good family entertainment," many of the "adult" Westerns broke ground as dramatic television as to what could be shown and themes that could be presented. Many of these shows featured stories that tackled such subjects as tolerance, domestic violence and poverty, which when tackled on current TV shows "upset' the people who are usually bemoaning the loss of the Westerns.
Now, let's see KYTV's Ethan Forhetz come up with his list of great TV Westerns. In the words of Gil Favor from Rawhide, "Head'em up - Move'em out!"