- For much of the parallel history of television and feature films, television has been looked down upon as an inferior cinematic medium; it has been the case since television’s beginning. Television Westerns evolved not from big-budget cinema Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s but from B Westerns. During the 1930s and 1940s, low-budget studios on poverty row issued dozens of hastily produced B Westerns, often in series with the same characters. After World War II ended and the United States’ economy was at an all time high, radio network executives began seriously exploring the commercial prospects of television, the new technology whose development had been put on hold due to the war. Their first programming efforts consisted of recycling recently made B Westerns, so Westerns were the genre television began with. The first nationwide made-for-television series appeared on NBC in 1949—the Hopalong Cassidy Show developed by a media savvy William Boyd, who had had the foresight years before to purchase the television rights to his character and his films when studio executives did not particularly care. Boyd moved from making hour-long films to making weekly 30-minute episodes. Roy Rogers and Gene Autrysoon followed with their own shows. Even Gabby Hayeshad a show for a while.For the first few years, network executives considered Westerns strictly for the youth demographic, both boys and girls. Early shows such as Annie Oakley (1954–1956) and Buffalo Bill Jr. (1955–1956) always had children in their casts. For the fall season of 1955, however, the networks began exploring “adult” Westerns. Gunsmoke (1955–1975) began its long run on CBS and Cheyenne (1955–1963) was scheduled by ABC. Gunsmoke, though, proved to be phenomenally influential. The cast consisted strictly of adults working out adult problems in adult ways: Marshal Dillon (James Arness), for example, could walk into a saloon and order a beer. (Hopalong Cassidy usually avoided saloons, but his sidekicks occasionally ordered milk at the bar.)From 1956 through the end of the decade, the rush was on, and Westerns dominated television: Wagon Train (1957–1965), with Ward Bond; Have Gun—Will Travel (1957–1963), with Richard Boone; The Rifleman (1958–1963), with Chuck Connors; and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958–1961), with Steve McQueen, were some of the most popular shows. They had far more popularity than any of the old B Westerns.The glut had a significant impact on American culture. As the cold war intensified and as the John F. Kennedy administration took office, Westerns began to be criticized for their mindless violence and easy morality. Much had changed with the genre during the decade. When Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Newton Minow famously declared television a “vast wasteland,” he was primarily referring to the preponderance of Westerns on the air. Thus, during the 1960s a new kind of television Western emerged. Gunsmokecontinued, but even that venerable show changed with the times. Instead of violent Westerns like Wanted: Dead or Alive, new family-friendly Westerns emerged, notably Bonanza in 1959. The show emphasized family themes with a father and his adult sons. Gunplay was rare. Good humor was common. Bonanza was the first television show filmed in color. Its episodes aired in the early evening so that retailers could turn their new color television sets on for the show, thus promoting their product. Other shows followed the trend: The Big Valley (1965–1969) and The High Chaparral (1967– 1971). Rawhide, a show about cattle drives, had a successful run from 1959–1966. Clint Eastwood, a secondary actor on the show, continued making episodes even after finishing his filming in Italy and Spain on the Dollars Trilogy.As the 1960s progressed and as a new cynicism pervaded American culture, Westerns again changed. Comic Westerns such as Maverick (1957–1962) and The Wild Wild West (1965–1969) set the tone, although Gunsmoke and Bonanza continued. When the Western spoofs such as F Troop (1965–1967) began showing, it was obvious that the end was near for television Westerns. By 1970 the Western was nearly gone from television. Between 1970 and 1988, only 28 Westerns were developed for network television. The baby boomer generation was growing up, the Vietnam War and major cultural changes were dividing the country, and, for most viewers, Westerns no longer seemed relevant.Through the years to come, a few series such as Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993–1998) or Kung Fu(1972–1975) had popular runs, but they were not traditional Westerns by any means. Little House on the Prairie (1974–1983) probably typified where Westerns were headed by the 1980s.But Westerns did return to television in the 1990s, and after the turn of the new century, miniseries such as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1989) brought the Western back. Made-for-television movies were regularly Westerns. In 2004 the most popular television Western ever began its run, Deadwood, a truly adult Western with graphic sex and colorful language in abundance. Those who said back in the 1980s that Westerns were dead were simply mistaken. Television Westerns have shared a parallel history with cinema Westerns. While 30-minute Western series dominated television in the 1950s, cinema Westerns were also flourishing, at least in quantity. When television Westerns slumped in the 1980s, so did cinema Westerns. In the beginning, older Western stars such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry finished their careers in television, but television has also produced many major cinema Western actors: Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, James Garner, and others.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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