It is a curious fact that while Superman was the first major comic book superhero, he was not the first comic book superhero to appear in live action on the big screen. In fact, by the time the first Superman serial was made in 1948, several other comic book superheroes had already appeared in movie serials of their own. Even archrival Captain Marvel and fellow Detective Comics character Batman would appear in live action before the Man of Steel.
The reasons that it took so long for Superman to appear in a live action film, nearly ten years after his debut, were varied. Not the least of these was Superman's parent company, Detective Comics Inc. (later National Comics, one of the companies which would make up today's DC Comics). It was not long after Superman's debut in 1938 that Republic Pictures, an independent studio best known for their serials, optioned the rights for a Superman serial. Unfortunately, Detective Comics Inc. desired much more control over the production than Republic was willing to grant them. In the end Republic utilised the script to their proposed Superman serial for the serial Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940), changing the names and other particulars. The serial featured a masked hero, Copperhead (Robert Wilcox) who faces off against a would be world conqueror, Dr. Satan (Eduardo Ciannelli).
The failure of Republic's Superman project to make it to completion did not mean that the Man of Tomorrow would not appear on the big screen within a few years after his comic book debut. Within months of his debut in Action Comics #1, June 1938, Superman had become a full fledged phenomenon with children across the United States. By February 1940 he already head his own radio show. It was then natural that Paramount Pictures should take an interest in the Man of Steel. They approached animators Max and Dave Fleischer (whose cartoons Paramount distributed) with the offer of producing a series of Superman cartoons. The Fleischers were not exactly keen on the idea, so they simply projected a then astronomical budget of $100,000 for the series. To their surprise, Paramount accepted what was then an unheard of amount for a series of animated shorts. The first Superman animated short, entitled "Superman," but also known as "The Mad Scientist," debuted on Septemeber 26, 1941. In all, 17 Superman animated shorts would be made between 1941 and 1943.
It was also in 1941 that Republic once more sought to make a Superman serial. They even went so far as to announce the project in a promotional book for movie distributors, Republic Pictures Advance Serial Promotion Book, that year, complete with drawings of proposed scenes for the serial. Unfortunately, it would turn out that Paramount not only had the rights to produce the Superman cartoons, but they had exclusive rights to the Man of Steel on the silver screen. Unable to get the rights to Superman, Republic Pictures then bought the rights to bring Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Publications. At the time Captain Marvel was Superman's closest rival in comic books, and at time even outsold the Man of Steel in the Forties. In turn Detective Comics Inc. would attempt to stop the production of The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and would even name Republic Pictures alongside Fawcett Publications in their famous lawsuit alleging that Captain Marvel infringed on their copyright for Superman. While Captain Marvel would ultimately be found to infringe on Superman, Republic Pictures would not be held liable for producing The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Not only would Captain Marvel then become the first comic book superhero to appear in a live action movie, but since its release The Adventures of Captain Marvel would come to be regarded as the greatest serial of all time by many.
It was in 1943 that Paramount Pictures (who had in the meantime taken over Fleischer Studios and renamed it "Famous Studios") ended the Superman cartoon series. The reason was quite simply the cost of each short, which averaged around $30,000 (nearly $800,000 today). With the end of Paramount's Superman cartoon series, the rights to Superman for the big screen once more became available. Those rights were purchased by Sam Katzman, a B movie and serial producer best known for his cost effectiveness in producing films. Katzman had produced both The East Side Kids series (which would evolve into The Bowery Boys series) and the Teen Agers series for Poverty Row studio Monogram Studios. In 1945 Katzman signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to produce low budget serials and feature films.
Curiously, after having obtained the rights to the Man of Tomorrow, Sam Katzman did not offer the project to Columbia right away. Instead he approached Universal Pictures and Republic. Universal turned Katzman down, as they had ceased making serials in 1946. With the popularity of the serials in a serious decline, Universal had no desire to get back into the business. Republic also turned Katzman down, claiming that it would be impossible to bring a superhuman character who could fly, like Superman, to the big screen. Given that Republic Pictures had produced The Adventures of Captain Marvel and in a few years would produce a serial with a hero who could fly (King of the Rocket Men in 1949), this seems as if it was merely an excuse. It is quite possible that, since National Comics (as Detective Comics Inc. had been renamed following the purchase of All-American in 1945) had included Republic in their infringement lawsuit against Fawcett Publications the studio had no real love for the comic book company. It might also be pointed out that by 1946 the majority of Republic Pictures' serials were based on original material rather than pre-existing characters from other media.
Having been turned down by both Universal and Republic, Sam Katzman then went to Columbia Pictures. Although counted among the Big Seven studios, Columbia Pictures bordered on Poverty Row in the Thirties and Forties. While the studio would produce many major motion pictures, the bulk of their output was often B-movies. As to their serials, they were often made with budgets much lower than the smaller Republic Pictures. To Columbia's advantage was the fact that they had brought National Comics characters to the big screen before. It was Columbia who first brought Batman to the movies in the 1943 serial The Batman. In 1946 they brought Hop Harrigan, a flying ace initially owned by All-American but by that year owned by National Comics, to the big screen. It was in 1947 that Columbia adapted The Vigilante, a cowboy themed superhero who shared the pages of Action Comics with Superman, into a serial. Columbia Pictures then had a working relationship with National Comics. Between Columbia Pictures (known for low budget serials) and Sam Katzman (known for pinching pennies in producing films), it would be certain that Superman would not have an enormous budget.
Of major concern was the casting of Superman. Many different actors were considered for the role. It has been said that among these actors numbered Buster Crabbe, who had played the roles of Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and, most famously, Flash Gordon. A former athlete who had won a gold medal for swimming in the 1932 Olympics, Crabbe would have been ideal for the role. Reportedly Crabbe turned down the part of Superman because he had already been typecast in the role of comic strip-style heroes. It was when Sam Katzman was looking through photographs of actors with whom he had worked in the past that he fell upon a picture of Kirk Alyn. Katzman had previously worked with Alyn in the movies Sweet Genevieve and Little Miss Broadway. He consulted with Whitney Ellsworth (then the editor on the Superman titles at National and their contact with the studios in Hollywood) and he approved a meeting with Alyn.
In the beginning National Comics was not sold on the choice of Kirk Alyn for the role of Superman. At his first meeting concerning the role, Alyn walked in wearing a moustache and a goatee he had grown for a part in a period piece (probably the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, in which he had a bit part). His reception from National Comics was then unenthusiastic at best. Fortunately, Sam Katzman and Kirk Alyn were able to win the comic book company over (as Alyn told National Comics of his facial hair, "It shaves off, you know").
For the role of Lois Lane, Sam Katzman cast actress Noel Neill. Noel Neill had appeared in his Teen Agers series at Monogram and the serial Brick Bradford at Columbia. She would spend more time playing Lois Lane than any other actress. Not only did she reprise her role in the 1950 serial Atom Man vs. Superman, but she returned to the role on the TV series The Adventures of Superman after Phyllis Coates left in 1953. In fact, Noel Neill may have appeared in more movies and TV shows featuring the Man of Steel than any other actor, not only playing Lois Lane in the two serials and in The Adventures of Superman, but appearing as Lois Lane's mother in the 1978 feature film Superman, in a guest appearance on the TV show Superboy, and in the 2006 feature Superman Returns. The role of Superman's pal and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet went to former child star Tommy Bond. Bond had appeared in Hal Roach's Our Gang series and entries in the Gas House Kids series before playing Olsen. As Perry White was cast Pierre Watkin, a character actor who had appeared in roles as authority figures in major motion pictures and B movies alike. He had worked with Katzman on the serial Brick Bradford (with Noel Neill), a Bowery Boys film, and a Teen Agers film (again with Noel Neill).
To direct Superman, Katzman hired Spencer Gordon Bennet. Bennet already had many serials to his credit, including Katzman's own Brick Bradford. To head the serial's writing staff, Katzman brought in George H. Plympton. Plympton was a prolific screenwriter who had been working in the movies since the silent era (his first credit was in 1912). Over the years he had worked on numerous B-movies and serials, including the classic Flash Gordon (1936), The Spider's Web, The Green Hornet, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, and The Vigilante. While he had been in the business for well over thirty years by the time he wrote Superman, Plympton enjoyed needling National Comics. For example, in the script he had Superman cry "Hi-Yo, Silver!" instead of his customary "Up, up, and away!" before taking flight.
While filming the serial Kirk Alyn had a stunt double in the form of Paul Stader, who would later work on North by Northwest, Our Man Flint, the TV series Star Trek, and many other films and TV shows. Alyn would be called upon to perform a few of his own stunts. In one scene he had to jump from the back of a truck, a stunt which nearly broke his leg, causing him to leave the production for a short while. In another scene he had to carry two people, one under each arm, out of a burning building. One stunt Kirk Alyn did not have to perform was flying.
Initially, the special effects crew did attempt to create a simulation of Kirk Alyn flying through the air. Kirk Alyn was suspended from wires (which were supposed to be opaque) in front of a rear projection screen of moving clouds. According to Kirk Alyn it was found in rushes that the wires were not opaque at all, but could easily be seen. Sam Katzman then fired all of the crew involved with the attempt to make Alyn "fly." Instead, whenever Superman was required to "fly," Superman became an animated character, not unlike that seen in the Paramount animated shorts. One rather suspects that even in the Forties this was less than convincing.
While Kirk Alyn had been hired to play both Superman and Clark Kent, he would not receive credit for playing the Man of Steel, instead receiving only credit for playing his mild mannered alter ego. Columbia Pictures announced in press releases that as it was impossible to find an actor who could play Superman, the real Superman would play the part. Today such a tactic might seem an insult to the audience's intelligence, as only very young children could possibly believe Superman was real. Indeed, it would be fairly obvious to anyone who watched the serial that Kirk Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent. It is doubtful that Columbia Pictures thought anyone but very young kids would believe the "real" Superman was playing himself, so this publicity ploy is perhaps best regarded as a little bit of fun make believe for both the studio and the audience.
Ultimately Superman would prove to be a smash hit. It was booked in cinemas which had never before shown a serial. It also became the highest grossing serial of all time. Its success would guarantee a sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, which would be released in 1950. Atom Man vs. Superman saw Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return to their respective roles. It would also see the screen debut of Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor, played by character actor Lyle Talbot.
For a time Superman would provide Kirk Alyn's career a boost. He played another comic book character, Blackhawk, in 1952. Over the years Alyn would be offered the roles of Batman (in the 1949 serial The Adventures of Batman and Robin) and Commando Cody (the hero of Republic's serials Radar Men from the Moon and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe). It is difficult to say whether Kirk Alyn was considered for the role of the Man of Steel in the Fifties television series The Adventures of Superman. Some reports claim that he was offered the part, but he turned it down. Other reports claimed that he was not offered the role at all. It has also been reported that when George Reeves asked for a salary increase after two seasons on the show, Kirk Alyn was offered the part of Superman on the series and again refused it. Regardless, Kirk Alyn never again played Superman again, although he would appear as Lois Lane's father in the 1978 feature film Superman.
The serial Superman would not have an impact on the Superman mythos the way that the radio show The Adventures of Superman (which gave Superman the power to fly, introduced the characters of Perry White and Jimmy Olson, and introduced kryptonite) had. While the serial may not have had a large impact on the Man of Steel himself, it would prove influential in other ways. Superman was credited with almost single handedly reviving the business of serials. Prior to the release of Superman in 1948, serials were declining in popularity. Universal had already left the field of producing serials. In 1947 Republic Pictures produced only three serials; in 1949, after the success of Superman at Columbia, it produced almost twice as many. It is quite possible that the success of Superman gave serials a much needed shot in the arm, allowing them to survive until the release of the last serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, by Columbia in 1956.
While the 1948 Superman serial may not have added much to the character or milieu of Superman, it would prove that the character could successfully be adapted to the medium of live action film. In the wake of the 1948 Superman serial not only followed its sequel Atom Man vs. Superman, but the Fifties TV series The Adventures of Superman, several animated cartoons for television, the 1978 feature film and its sequels, and the Nineties series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. While it was probably inevitable that Superman would make it to the big screen in live action, and movies and TV shows probably would have emerged eventually, arguably the 1948 serial started it all.
I do not feel particularly up to a blog entry tonight, so I thought instead I would provide two of my favourite shows with a bit of free promotion.
For those of you who have not seen it yet, you might want to catch up with the first two seasons of the series Mad Men on DVD. The series is set in the fictional advertising Sterling Cooper in the Sixties, generally considered the Golden Age of Advertising. Besides a great cast and great writers, what makes Mad Men such a great series is that that the characters behave as they would in the early Sixties. They smoke. They drink. They're sexists. Unlike many period pieces, no effort is made to have them behave as if they were from the Naughts. The show also has almost no anachronisms--I think in its entire run I have only counted maybe three or four, if that.
Currently, AMC has a web site set up where you can "Mad Men yourself"--that is, create your own Mad Men character. You can access it here. In expectation of the coming third season, Hitflix has a first look at Mad Men season three in the form of a photographic gallery. You can access it here (in the giving credit where credit is due, I learned of this from Reel Fanatic. Mad Men returns to AMC on August 16.
Another one of my favourite shows currently on the air is Leverage, whose second season is airing right now on TNT on Wednesday nights at 8:00 Central. Leverage centres on a team of former con artists, thieves, and hackers, banded together by a former insurance investigator, to right corporate and government wrongs against ordinary people. The show owes a lot to movies like Topkapi and Ocean's Eleven, so that each episode unfolds like a good caper movie. Leverage benefits from a great cast and some very smart writing.
Right now Leverage has a rather cute promotion where you can get the Leverage team to con your friends. I pulled a con on myself, which you can see here. Anyway, if you want to con your friends, you can do so here.
Virginia Carroll, an actress who appeared in B-Westerns and serials, passed on July 23 at the age of 95.
Virginia Carroll was born in Oklahoma on February 14, 1910. She was a department store model in Los Angeles, which led to her casting as in a bit part as a fashion model in her first film, Roberta, in 1935. She appeared in her first leading role in the B-Western A Tenderfoot Goes West in 1936, playing opposite Jack LaRue. Carroll's career in film would consist largely of such B-Westerns, including The Phantom Cowboy, The Masked Rider, and Riders of the Whistling Pines . She appeared alongside such cowboy stars as Don "Red" Barry, Bill Elliot, and Gene Autry. She made several Westerns opposite Johnny Mack Brown. Carroll also appeared in bit parts in major motion pictures, including Waterloo Bridge and Model Wife. She also appeared in a few serials, including The Mysterious Dr. Satan (which grew out of a planned Superman serial from Republic Pictures which fell through), Dick Tracy Returns, G-men vs. the Black Dragon, and Daughter of Don Q. In the serial Superman (1948) Virginia Carroll became the first woman to play Martha Kent, the adopted mother of Superman.
Carroll made her television debut in a 1952 episode of The Adventures of Superman. She went on to make guest appearances on Fireside Theatre, Studio 57, The Adventures of Kit Carson, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Roy Rogers Show, Dragnet, and Perry Mason.
Harvey Frand, who produced such television shows as the Eighties version of The Twilight Zone, The Pretender, and the Western The Lazarus Man, passed on July 28 at the age of 68. The cause was respiratory problems.
Harvey Frand was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1941. He started in television there at NBC News. Frand would move onto Warner Brothers, where he was the executive overseeing the production of the series Harry-O. His experience on the show spurred his interest in television production. He produced a revival on Broadway of Sweet Bird of Youth, which ran from December 29, 1975 to February 8, 1976.
The Devlin Connection, Rock Hudson's last series, which debuted in 1982, would be the first show which Frand produced. He produced 34 episodes of the Eighties version of The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1985 to 1988. He also worked on the Eighties series Beauty and the Beast, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. In the Nineties he produced The Young Riders, the short lived Western the Lazarus Man starring Robert Ulrich. He would also produce The Pretender and the short lived show Strange World. The final show on which Frand served as producer was the re-envisioning of Battlestar Galactica, which ran on the Sci-Fi Channel from 2004 to 2009.
It was 50 years ago yesterday that Alfred Hitchcock's classic spy thriller North by Northwest was released. North by Northwest would prove to be one of the hit films of 1959. Since then it has not only come to be regarded as a classic, but as one of Hitchcock's best films and one of the greatest films of all time. What is more, it would prove to extremely influential.
The genesis of North by Northwest goes back to 1957. MGM had bought the rights to the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (published in 1956). The studio assigned the project to director Alfred Hitchcock, who brought screen writer Ernest Lehman (who had previously written Billy Wilder's Sabrina) onto the project. After a few weeks of struggling with the script, Lehman went to Hitchcock and told him that he really did not know how to The Wreck of the Mary Deare and he should find someone else to write the screenplay. Hitchcock simply told him that they would do something else. Under contract to MGM, Lehman asked the director what they would tell the studio. Hitchcock replied, "We won't tell them anything." After Hitchcock and Lehman had met for several weeks, Lehman told the director that he wanted to "...do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures..." The movie would have all of the elements which audiences expected from a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock: suspense, wit, enormous set pieces, and an innocent, ordinary person caught in intrigue. Eventually Hitchcock would confess that he always wanted to film a chase atop Mount Rushmore. Out of Lehman's desire to write the ultimate Alfred Hitchcock movie and Hitchcock's desire to film a chase atop Mount Rushmore emerged North by Northwest (for those of you wondering about the adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare, it was made by Michael Anderson and starred Gary Cooper).
Initially the movie would be titled In a Northwesterly Direction and even briefly Breathless (which would become the English title of Jean-Luc Goddard's Hitchcock homage A bout de souffle). The title would finally be established as North by Northwest, a play on words as at one point in the plot Cary Grant's character would travel by Northwest Airlines. As the screenplay developed it was established that the movie would start in New York City, with a scene set at the United Nations building, and would then move in a northwesterly direction (hence the original title) to Mount Rushmore and perhaps even as far as Alaska. It was established that the innocent protagonist would be mistaken for a decoy--a spy for the United States government who did not really exist and intended to fool the Soviets. This idea then became the MacGuffin which propelled the plot forward.
The casting of North by Northwest would prove interesting. MGM wanted Gregory Peck for the role of the innocent protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock told Jimmy Stewart about the movie, and Stewart became very interested in the film. Unfortunately for Stewart, Hitchcock thought Verigo had failed at the box office because Stewart looked "too old." So as not to disappoint Stewart, Hitchcock simply delayed North by Northwest until Stewart was committed to Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger. All along Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant (with whom he had worked three times before) to play the protagonist and it was Cary Grant who was cast in the end. Ironically, Cary Grant was actually four years older than Jimmy Stewart! For the role of the beautiful female spy MGM had wanted Hitchcock to cast dancer Cyd Charisse or Italian actress Sophia Loren. As might be expected Hitchcock wanted a blonde in the part. The role ultimately went to Eva Marie Saint.
Although North by Northwest takes place in several different locales (everything from New York City to rural Indiana), much of the film was shot on soundstages. Much of this was due to necessity. The United Nations building forbade any movies from filming there. To get around this Hitchcock came up with a novel solution. Hitchcock and a photographer went into the UN building's lobby posing as tourists doing what tourists do--taking pictures. These photographs would then be used to build a set duplicating the lobby of the United Nations. When combined with footage of Cary Grant entering the UN building filmed with hidden camera, the shots filmed on set replicating the UN lobby gave the illusion that Grant was actually in the United Nations. Hitchcock ran into a similar problem with Mount Rushmore. The Department of the Interior would not permit any shooting to take place atop the monument itself. What is more, they would not even allow the characters to crawl over a facsimile of the monument. Eventually the Department of the Interior and Alfred Hitchcock compromised. The characters could be filmed crawling over a replica of the monument, but they could only go in between the faces of the presidents, not over them. The scene taking place in a South Dakota woods was also shot on a soundstage. Hicthcock thought that shooting in an actual South Dakota forest would be cost prohibitive, so instead he planted 100 pine trees on an MGM soundstage. The famous cornfield chase was not filmed in Indiana either. Instead, it was shot in Bakersfield, California in a cornfield planted by the studio.
Of course, while many of the scenes in North by Northwest were shot on soundstages, there were also scenes shot on actual locations. The scene at the train station was shot at Grand Central Station in New York City. An early scene in a hotel restaurant was shot in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. The scenes taking place in Midway Airport in Chicago were actually shot there.
While many today regard North by Northwest as a nearly perfect film, amazingly enough MGM thought the movie was too long. They wanted Hitchcock to cut the movie by 15 minutes. Fortunately, Hitchcock's contract stipulated that he receive approval of the final cut of the film. In the end, only 5 seconds were cut from North by Northwest. One line in the film would be changed. It was felt that Eva Marie Saint's original line, "I never make love on an empty stomach" was to be too risqué; it was overdubbed with the line "I never discuss love on an empty stomach."
Upon its release North by Northwest proved to be a hit. It would become the highest grossing movie at the United Artist Theatre in Chicago and became MGM's highest grossing movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, playing there for a full seven weeks. It also received sterling reviews from critics. In the end North by Northwest would tie for the sixth highest grossing film of 1959 (a banner box office year for Hollywood) with Anatomy of a Murder). The film would be nominated for three Oscars (Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; Best Film Editing; and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen).
North by Northwest would prove to be one of Hitchcock's most financially successful films. Indeed, in some ways it is difficult to argue that with North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman did not create the ultimate Hitchcock film. The premise of the film is pure Hitchcock. Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) finds himself mistaken for one George Kaplan, allegedly a secret agent for a United States intelligence agency. Hunted by foreign spies and framed for murder, Thornhill must flee across the United States. The film not only features some of the most iconic scenes in any Hitchcock movie, but some of the most iconic scenes in any movie. The crop dusting scene, in which Thornhill is pursued by an aeroplane through a cornfield, may be the second most famous scene from any Alfred Hitchcock film, surpassed in fame only by the shower scene from Pscycho. The scenes atop Mount Rushmore remains one of the most famous climaxes in film history.
Ultimately, North by Northwest would prove to be one of Hitchock's most influential films when it comes to Anglo-American pop culture. With the Fifties and the Cold War, there was renewed interest in espionage in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. During the Fifties spy fiction experienced a rebirth in popularity, with characters such as Johnny Fedora, James Bond, and Sam Durell appearing in print for the first time during the decade. North by Northwest would capitalise on the growing interest in spies and would prove a powerful influence on the spy craze that would sweep the UK and U.S. in the Sixties. Many of the elements which would make the James Bond movies a success in the coming decade would first be seen in North by Northwest. Like the Bond movies, North by Northwest takes place in several different, colourful settings, from the UN building to a cornfield in Indiana to Mount Rushmore. Like the Bond movies it featured a secret government agency headed by a mysterious figure (the Professor, played by Leo G. Carroll, in North by Northwest; M in the James Bond movies). Like the Bond movies, North by Northwest featured a beautiful woman (Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint) with whom the hero becomes involved. Many of the elements which would make the Bond movies and similar spy movies a success were already present in North by Northwest.
As much of an influence as North by Northwest was upon the spy movies of the Sixties, it may have been even more of an influence on the spy shows which took over both British and American television in the Sixties. The influence of North by Northwest may well be most apparent on one of the most successful Sixties spy shows, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. While Ian Fleming's nonfiction book Thrilling Cities would provide part of the inspiration for the series (to the point that producer Norman Felton asked Ian Fleming to create a rough outline for the prospective show), it would be the success of North by Northwest which provided the initial impetus for the show. It occurred to Norman Felton that audiences may be growing tired of the cowboys, policemen, private eyes, and physicians who had been the protagonists in TV shows up to the early Sixties. Looking to Alfred Hitchcock's spy thrillers, especially North by Northwest, Fenton thought American television might be ready for a hero who was a spy. The influence of North by Northwest upon The Man From U.N.C.L.E would go further than providing the initial idea for the series. The Man From U.N.C.L.E would feature a hero very much like Cary Grant in the form of U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn). Leo G. Carroll, who played the mysterious head of a United States intelligence agency in North by Northwest, was cast as Mr. Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. What is more, Felton decided that every episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E should feature an innocent bystander who would become involved in the plot, not unlike Thornhill in North by Northwest.
While other spy shows of the Sixties would not be as heavily influenced by North by Northwest as The Man From U.N.C.L.E, they would be influenced nonetheless, particularly with regards to casting. Edward Platt, who played Thornhill's lawyer Victor Larrabee, was cast as the Chief of CONTROL on the spy comedy Get Smart. Martin Landau, who played the villain's Vandamm's henchman in North by Northwest, would be cast as master of disguise Roland Hand on Mission: Impossible. Even actors with smaller roles would benefit from their exposure in North by Northwest with regards to appearing in Sixties spy series. Robert Ellenstein, who played Licht in the movie, would make several guest appearances on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, and Mission: Impossible.
The influence of North by Northwest on movies has persisted to this day. Quite simply, in many ways it was the first modern spy thriller. While there was no shortage of excitement in spy thrillers before North by Northwest, North by Northwest took its action scenes to an entirely new level, with situations (such as being pursued by a plane across a cornfield and struggling to survive atop Mount Rushmore) in which escape seemed nearly impossible for the hero. The vast majority of spy thrillers made since 1959 show some influence from North by Northwest in their action scenes, from Dr. No to The Bourne Identity.
North by Northwest has consistently been ranked among the greatest films of all time. The American Film Institute placed it at #40 among the best films ever made in their 100 Years…100 Movies list. The magazine Cashiers du Cinemart also counted North by Northwest among the 100 greatest films of all time, as did Entertainment Weekly. In the Writers Guild America's list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, the screenplay for North by Northwest came in at #21. In 1995 the Library of Congress selected North by Northwest for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Fifty years after it was made, North by Northwest is not only hailed as a classic, but one of the greatest films of all time. Given its continued popularity and the influence it has had on pop culture, it is very difficult to argue otherwise.
Native Americans on Television From the Seventies Until Now
Native American characters were fairly common on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties. The vast majority of these characters appeared in the many Westerns which aired during the time, although by the mid-Sixties Native American characters started appearing in milieus other than the Old West. Unfortunately, as the Western declined in popularity on television, Native American characters appeared less frequently. By the early Seventies, when only a few Westerns were on the air, Native Americans represented only 0.3% of all characters on television.
While Western TV shows were in decline and while Native American were appearing in fewer numbers on television than they had since the early Sixties, at least some Native American characters were appearing in shows set in the present day. On September 19, 1971 Cade's County debuted on ABC. Cade's County was a crime drama set in the present day starring film star Glenn Ford as Sam Cade, the sheriff in the fictional Madrid County in an unnamed Western state. The show featured several Native American characters in its single season on the air. Among these characters were police dispatchers Joanie Little Bird (Sandra Ego) and Irene (Betty Ann Carr). Notably both Sandra Ego and Betty Ann Carr are Native Americans.
While Native American characters appeared in supporting roles on Cade's County, a Native American character was the lead on the TV show Nakia. Nakia was a present day crime drama set in rural New Mexico, starring Robert Forster as Deputy Nakia Parker, a full blooded Navajo. While the show generally dealt with the usual murders, kidnapping, thefts, et. al that were the standard fare on crime dramas at the time, Nakia occasionally featured subplots in which Nakia must reconcile life in modern society with traditional Navajo culture. It was one of the few times that a series set in the present day actually attempted to deal with issues facing Native Americans. Sadly, Nakia only lasted thirteen episodes.
Of course, while they may have been rarer than in the previous two decades, frontier dramas and Westerns still aired in the Seventies. And Native American characters often appeared in these frontier dramas and Westerns. In fact, a Native American character was a regular on the series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams featured the highly fictionalised adventures of the historical woodsman J. Capen "Grizzly" Adams in the 1850's. Among Grizzly's friends on the series was Nakoma (Don Shanks), a Native American who had become Grizzly's "blood brother." Don Shanks himself is Cherokee.
Unfortunately, as the Seventies were coming to a close, Native American characters would disappear from the small screen almost entirely. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the disappearance of the Western from the small screen. Sadly, in the Fifties and Sixties the vast majority of Native American characters appeared in Westerns--only a few appeared on shows set in the present day and one (Chief on Garrison's Gorillas) in a show set during World War II. Gunsmoke, the longest running Western TV series of all time, went off the air at the end of the 1974-1975 season. Afterwards only a few Western series would air on the American broadcast networks, many of which were very short lived. As the Western disappeared from the small screen, so too did Native American characters.
Of course, this does not explain why Native American characters did not appear in television shows set in the present day. One possible reason, like the disappearance of Westerns on the small screen, is rooted in a trend at the networks in the late Sixties and the late Seventies. From the Fifties into the Sixties the American broadcast networks had only paid attention to a television show's ratings, paying no attention as to who was watching the show. This started to change in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the networks began paying attention to the particular demographics watching television series. Madison Avenue preferred (and still does, to a large degree) a demographic of individuals 18 to 49 years of age, particularly those who live in urban areas. This would have a dramatic impact on network programming. The Red Skelton Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Lawrence Welk Show would all be cancelled despite still having respectable ratings, simply because their audiences were "too old." It was in the 1970-1971 season that CBS would conduct what has come to be called the "Rural Purge." CBS cancelled fifteen shows, the majority of which appealed to rural audiences. Among the series cancelled were such popular shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres.
Since that time only a very few shows have been set in rural areas. Indeed, at times it has been difficult to find a TV series on the networks that is not set in either New York City or Los Angeles. The reason this could possibly have an impact on the presence of Native American on television shows is that Native Americans tend to be most populous in states that are largely rural, such as Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and so on. If the vast majority of TV series are only being set in large cities, and many in only two cities (New York and Los Angeles), neither of which has large Native populations (only 0.7% of New York's population are Native Americans, while only 0.5% of the population of Los Angeles are Natives), then it stands to reason that Native American characters are not going to appear very often.
Another reason for the near absence of Native American characters on television in the Eighties could also be due to the ways in which American mass media has historically reacted to the complaints of minorities with regards to their portrayal in the media. In 1951 CBS debuted a television version of the radio show Amos 'n' Andy. This would result in protests from the NAACP and other groups, resulting in the show's cancellation in 1953. Quite likely as a result, the networks would feature no African American characters in television shows until the Sixties. In his book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham complained about the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in comic books at the time. Afterwards African Americans were virtually invisible in comic books until the Sixties. In the Sixties there emerged a movement advocating civil rights for Native Americans. As a result, Natives and others began speaking out against the stereotypes of Native Americans in American mass media. It is quite possible that the networks reacted as other media outlets had in the past to protests from a minority--it simply excluded any Native American characters from TV shows.
Whatever the reasons, Native American characters have appeared in much, much fewer numbers from the Eighties into the Naughts than what they had in the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, beyond the few Western series, mini-series, and telefilms which aired in the Eighties, there was only two significant appearances of a Native character in a TV show. Buck James was a drama about a surgeon (Dennis Weaver) of that name in a Texas hospital. Among his friends was Vittorio, a Native American ranch foreman. Vittorio was played by Native American actor Dehl Berti, who would also play the only other recurring, Native character on a TV show in the Eighties.
That show was the Western Paradise. On the series Berti played John Taylor, the friend an advisor of gunfighter turned homesteader Cord (Lee Horsley). In some respects John Taylor fit the stereotype of the "wise elder," particularly as he was a medicine man. That having been said, the portrayal of John Taylor as a medicine man was generally more accurate than previous and even later portrayals.
Of course, here it must be pointed out that from the Seventies into the Nineties a new Native American stereotype would emerge. Interest in Native American mysticism and religion had emerged in the general public starting in the Sixties and Seventies. With the New Age movement such interest virtually exploded in the Eighties. Unfortunately, the New Age movement and the mass media would oversimplify the beliefs, rituals, and religion of the Native peoples, often ignoring the vast differences in religion between the many tribes (Cherokee beliefs are about as similar to Apache beliefs as Christianity is to Buddhism...). This and other factors at the time would result in the emergence of what has come to be called "the magical Native American stereotype." To a large degree the magical Native American can be considered the combination of the noble savage and wise elder stereotypes. Like the noble savage, the magical Native American exists on a higher moral plane than other people. Like the wise elder the magical Native American has access to ancient wisdom. Essentially, the magical Native American stereotype is any Native character who possesses incredible magical or mystical abilities. Sadly, the magical Native American would be a very common stereotype in the Nineties.
Over all, Native American characters would be more common on American broadcast television in the Nineties than they had been in the Eighties. As might be expected, they would appear in the few Western TV series that aired during the decade. Among these was the series The Young Riders, a fictionalised and very historically inaccurate series centred around group of young Pony Express riders shortly before the start of the War Between the States. Among the characters was Buck Cross, also known as Running Buck, who was half Kiowa. The actor who played him, Gregg Rainwater, is of Osage and Cherokee descent (with some Irish thrown in there too).
While The Young Riders was to some degree a traditional Western, a show would debut in the summer of 1990 that would turn a common theme in Westerns on its head. Northern Exposure debuted on July 12, 1990 as a summer replacement series and proved popular enough to last five years. The series originally centred on Dr. Joel Fleischman, a physician from New York City and fresh out of medical school, who must practise medicine in the small town of Ciecly, Alaska for four years in order to pay his student loans. Northern Exposure then effectively turned a theme common to Westerns inside out. Over the years many, many Westerns had portrayed Native Americans as being forced to adapt the culture of the United States; on Northern Exposure, Dr. Fleischman was forced to adapt to the cultures of the locals and the many Native American residents around Cicely.
Set in Alaska, where there are more indigenous peoples than any other state, Northern Exposure featured many Native American characters in lead roles, all of them Native in descent. Elaine Miles, who is of Cayuse and Nez Perce ancestry, played Fleischman's receptionist Marilyn Whirlwind, an entirely cynical, entirely unflappable Tlingit. Darren E. Burrows (the son of actor Billy Drago), who is one fourth Apache and one fourth Cherokee, played Ed Chigliak. Ed was a half Native child deserted by his parents and raised by the local tribe. Ed was mild mannered, intelligent, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. In fact, in the course of the series he made three movies of his own. In addition to Marilyn and Ed there were many recurring characters who were Tlingit. Among these were Lester Haines (played by Apesanahkwat, who is of the Menominee tribe), the fifth richest man in the tundra, and Leonard Quinhagak (played by Graham Greene, who is of Oneida descent), the local medicine man and Ed's mentor.
Not only did Northern Exposure feature many Native characters, for the most part its portrayal of Tlingit culture was accurate. What is more, none of the Native characters could really be considered a stereotype. While Leonard was the local medicine man, he had a personality all his own and so he could hardly be considered a wise elder stereotype. And while Northern Exposure was made at the height of the popularity of the magical Native American stereotype, he could not be considered an example of the magical Native American either. Rather than portraying Tlingit medicine and religion in some generic, New Age way, Northern Exposure attempted to portray it in more accurate fashion. In the end, Northern Exposure would stand as one of the few shows which not only treated Native American characters as human beings rather than stereotypes, but which actually respected their culture.
The same could not be said for Walker, Texas Ranger. Walker, Texas Ranger featured Chuck Norris as Cordell Walker, a Texas Ranger based in Dallas. Walker himself was part Cherokee (as is Chuck Norris) and was raised by his Cherokee uncle Ray Firewalker (played by the late, great Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, who was Sioux). One would think that Chuck Norris being part Cherokee, Walker, Texas Ranger would have made an effort to portray Cherokee culture accurately. Sadly, the show is in many ways more grossly inaccurate than the portrayal of Mingo on Daniel Boone. Over all Walker, Texas Ranger portrayed the Cherokee as if they were Plains Natives, complete with powwow dancing. Worse yet, Walker, Texas Ranger freely engaged in the magical Native American stereotype, complete with a mysticism that was wholly alien to Cherokee religion and borrowed liberally from the beliefs of Western tribes. In the end I must express some surprise that more outrage has not been expressed towards Walker, Texas Ranger for its distortion of Cherokee culture.
Walker, Texas Ranger debuted in April 1993. Earlier that year in January 1993 there debuted another show which would also feature Native American characters, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman followed the adventures of Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour), a female physician in Colorado Springs in the 1860's. Near Colorado Springs there was a Cheyenne village, so that it was inevitable that Native characters would appear on the show. Unfortunately, while the show's portrayal of the Cheyenne was sympathetic, it was also stereotypical. The Cheyenne are largely portrayed as noble savages living an idyllic life in their village. Because of this nearly every Cheyenne character appearing on the show is flat and one dimensional. At least it did not quite distort Cheyenne culture as severely as Walker, Texas Ranger had Cherokee culture.
Star Trek: Voyager, which debuted on January 16, 1995 on UPN), would actually feature a Native American character in a lead role in the form of Chakotay (Robert Beltran). One would think that the Star Trek franchise, which led the way in featuring minority characters, would have done well by Native Americans. Unfortunately, they fell short with the portrayal of Chakotay. Chakotay belonged to the fictional Anurabi tribe which colonised a distant planet many, many years ago. Sadly, Chakotay's Anurabi background was only explored very superficially. When it was explored it had very little to do with genuine Native American cultures. An example of this is Chakotay's vision quests in episodes such as "The Cloud" and "The Fight." These vision quests actually owe much more to New Age beliefs than any actual Native American religion. While Chakotay does have his own personality, his Native American background was ultimately little more than window dressing. In fact, in some respects Chakotay was another manifestation of the magical Native American stereotype so popular at the time.
On January 12, 1997 there debuted yet another television series which featured a Native American regular character. The animated show King of the Hill centred on Hank Hill and his family, who lived in the small Texas town of Arlen. Unlike other animated series in prime time, King of the Hill took a more realistic approach, to the point that it actually had more in common with classic sitcoms than The Simpsons or The Family Guy. Among the characters on the series was John Redcorn (originally voiced by Victor Aaron of the Yaqui tribe and later Jonathan Joss of the Comanche), a character whose tribe affiliation is never quite identified, although they appear to be related to the ancient Anasazi people in some way. Despite this, John Redcorn appears as a well developed character through whom the series actually examines Native American culture and issues of importance to Native Americans.
John Redcorn is a masseur and New Age healer, but he hardly fits the magical Native American stereotype. He was a former roadie for Winger and is the lead singer for the heavy metal band Big Mountain Fudgecake. He also had an affair with Nancy, the wife of conspiracy theorist Dale Gribble, and fathered a son by her in the form of Joseph Gribble. The series has occasionally addressed Native American issues. In the episode "Nancy's Boys," John Redcorn sought Federal recognition for his tribe. The episode "Spin the Choice" John Redcorn addresses Bobby Hill's class at school on the government's treatment of Native Americans. In the same episode John Redcorn accepted 12 acres of land from the Federal government, land which been taken from his tribe by the United States.
King of the Hill did make some errors with regards to Native Americans on occasion. It is very doubtful that John Redcorn's tribe descended from the Anasazi. The Anasazi lived in what is now called the Four Corners region of the United States, the area where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah all meet. The only tribe in Texas which could be descended from the Anasazi is the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, who were displaced from New Mexico to Texas during the Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in the years 1680 and 1681. In the episode "Spin the Choice," Bobby Hill pays tribute to John Redcorn's tribe, even mentioning their history of cannibalism. While evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi has been found in the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, we have no way of knowing the context in which it took place. It could have easily occurred from hardship, as it did with the Donner Party in American history or during the Battle of Suiyang in Chinese history. Of course, even given the occasional errors made with regards to Native American cultures and history in King of the Hill, John Redcorn remains a truer portrayal of Native Americans on the small screen than many. Like the Native characters on Northern Exposure, he actually has a personality. He would also be for many, many years, the only Native character who occurred regularly in a prime time series.
The late Nineties and the early Naughts would see the release of several feature films about Native American life, made by Native Americans themselves. Such movies as Naturally Native (1998), Smoke Singals (1998), The Doe Boy (2001), Atanarjuat (2001), and The Business of Fancy Dancing (2002) all examined the experiences of modern, Native Americans. From the Nineties into the Naughts, series featuring people of the First Nations would air on Canadian television, among them North of 60, The Rez, Moccasin Flats, and Moose TV. Sadly, this would have little impact on American television, as Native American characters would be even rarer in the Naughts than they had in the Nineties. For most of the decade, John Redcorn would be the only Native character on American network broadcast television.
Given the paucity of Native American characters on American network broadcast television in the Naughts, it is perhaps remarkable that in 2003 there would air an entire mini-series based on Native American folk tales. Dreamkeeper aired on ABC on December 28 and 29, 2003. The mini-series had a frame story of Lakota storyteller Pete Chasing Horse (August Schellenberg) accompanying his grandson Shane Chasing Horse (Eddie Spears) to the fictional All Nations Powwow (based on the actual Gathering of Nations Pow-wow) being held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a trip the grandson does not really wish to take. As they travel Pete tells his grandson several Native American folk tales, which are then dramatised. Dreamkeeper retold the folk tales fairly faithfully and was accurate with regards to the portrayal of Native culture. This should not be surprising as every effort was made to insure the mini-series' authenticity. During its filming, the producers relied upon representatives from the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, Mohawk, and Pawnee to insure that Dreamkeeper was accurate. Dreamkeeper certainly did not surrender itself to New Age ideas about Native American religion, even poking fun at the wannabe Native Americans of the New Age movement.
Dreamkeeper was relatively well received and won Best Film at the annual American Indian Film Festival in 2003. Sadly, this was not enough to give Native American characters more visibility on American television. In the years since Dreamkeeper there has been only one notable Native character to debut on a show on the American broadcast networks. It was in the 8th season episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit that the character of Detective Chester Lake (played by Ojibwa actor Adam Beach, perhaps best known from the movie Smoke Signals) first appeared. Chester Lake was a Mohawk who was with the Brooklyn Homicide Unit when he made his debut. At the end of the eighth season, Detective Lake transferred from the Brooklyn Homocide Unit to the Special Victims Unit of the 16th District of the New York City Police Department (on which the show focuses). He then became a regular character on the show for its ninth season. Detective Lake was proud of his Mohawk ancestry and made reference to his people on occasion. Sadly, like the other characters of the show (with the exceptions of leads Stabler and Benson), little time was devoted to exploring his background. Adam Beach left the series at the end of the ninth season, with Detective Lake being written out of the show.
With the decade of the Naughts nearly coming to an end, it seems clear that the decade has been one of the worst with regards to the visibility of Native American characters on television since the Eighties. Indeed, for most of the decade John Redcorn of King of the Hill would be the only Native American character on primetime television. Sadly, it appears that the 2009-2010 will not see an improvement in the situation. While I have not seen any of the shows that are set to debut in the next season, from their settings (which are almost entirely urban), it seems unlikely that any will feature Native American characters.
It is a sad fact of the history of American network broadcast television that the networks have not always treated minorities well. It is an even sadder fact that in many ways this has not improved at the present time. Many minorities, including Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are still woefully underrepresented on prime time television. It is still a rare thing for the lead character on an hour long drama series to belong to an identifiable minority.
Sadly, the 2008-2009 season saw only one Native American character on any of the network television series in the United States. With the cancellation of King of the Hill it is possible that there may be no Native American characters on network broadcast television during the 2009-2010. And there is little reason to believe that this will change any time soon. The sad fact is that historically American network broadcast television has a very bad track record when it comes to including characters of any minority in TV series. It was in 1965 that Bill Cosby became the first African American to play a lead in an hour long drama in the series I Spy, but it would be nearly two decades before African Americans would be represented on American TV drams in numbers commensurate to their number in the American population. Even if a Native American were to appear as the lead character in an hour long drama next season, it might then be some time before Native American characters would appear on TV shows in numbers reflecting anything in real life.
The matter of Native American characters on American network broadcast television is complicated by the network's pursuit of viewers who are young and living in urban areas. Because of this, the vast majority of television shows are placed in settings with which producers think young, urban people will identify--that is, cities (most often New York or Los Angeles). Given that the states in which the majority of Natives live tend to be rural in population, the chances that Native American characters will be seen in any substantial numbers seem rather grim. In other words, one should not expect a series set in Tahlequah, Oklahoma any time soon.
To some degree the current absence of Native American characters from American network broadcast television reflects the history of Native American characters on television. It is true that Native American characters were much more common on television in the Fifties, Sixties, and even the Seventies, but it must be pointed out that the vast majority of these characters appeared in Western TV shows. The Native American character who was a regular on a show set in the present day was a rarity. Worse yet, while Native American characters were more common in the earlier decades of television's history, many of those characters were outright stereotypes. Even as late as the Nineties, shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman would feature the magical Native American and noble savage stereotypes.
Ultimately, it seems rather doubtful that there will be more Native American characters on American network television in the near future. That does not mean that the situation is without hope. The late Nineties and early Naughts saw the growth of movies about Native Americans made by Native Americans themselves, many of which (such as Smoke Signals and Whale Rider) proved popular with the general public. In 1988 Native American Television (NATV) was founded, an organisation meant to promote issues and news of interest to Native Americans and Native American culture. Part of NATV's mission is to found a nationwide, nonprofit, multimedia broadcasting network devoted to Native American interests and culture, as well as to train Native Americans in television and film production.
While the commercial networks have largely ignored Natives for the past many years, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has done quite a bit better by them. In 2002 PBS aired an adaptation of the novel Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman, featuring Navajo Tribal Policemen Jim Chee (Adam Beach) and Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi). It would be the following year that they would air an adaptation of another Tony Hillerman novel, Coyote Waits, featuring the same characters. Over the years the PBS series The American Experience has aired documentaries related to Native American history. This year PBS aired the documentary We Shall Remain on events in Native American history.
Given the rise of Native American cinema, the foundation of Native American Television, and the shows related to Natives which PBS has aired over the years, it seems possible that there is reason for hope for the increased visibility of Native Americans on network broadcast television in the United States. NATV will insure that there are Native Americans skilled in both film and television production, and many of these Native Americans could go onto work in the television industry where they can affect changes from within the industry. At the same time the success of Native American cinema and the various programmes related to Native Americans shown by PBS could eventually prove too much for the commercial broadcast networks to ignore. It then seems possible at that some point Native Americans will be represented on television in numbers reflecting their percentage in the American population.
While I wrote much of this series using my own knowledge of the history of American television (much of which, I must confess, was obtained first hand as a viewer), the series also required a good deal of research on my part. Following are a website and a few books which I utilised in researching this article. I highly recommend you check them out sometime.
Newspaper Rock (A blog devoted to the portrayal of Native Americans in pop culture. It not only proved invaluable in my research, but to be very interesting reading as well).
Fixico, Donald. American Indians in a Modern World. Lanham, MD. AltaMira Press, 2008.
Champagne, Duane. Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
Bird, S. Elizabeth. Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Boulder, CO. Westview Press, 1996.
Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian. Westport, CT. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.
Native American Characters on American Television in the Sixties and Seventies
While today Native American characters are almost entirely absent from American network broadcast television, this was not always the case. In the Fifties and Sixties Native American characters appeared frequently in American television shows. In fact, Native American characters would even be the leads in a few shows. Sadly, the vast majority of Native American characters on American television during the period only appeared because of their place in the history of the United States. While they appeared frequently in Westerns of the period, Native American characters were a rarity in shows set in the present.
Not only did Native American characters appear more often on American television in the Fifties and Sixties than they do today, but one of the earliest major characters on a television show was Native. The Lone Ranger was created by Fran Striker and debuted as a radio show on January 30, 1933 on WXYZ radio; Detroit, Michigan. The show followed the adventures of a masked, former Texas Ranger who travelled the countryside righting wrongs, aided by his Native American companion Tonto. The story of how The Lone Ranger and Tonto met varied throughout the years, although the basics of the story would remain the same; at some point or another The Lone Ranger (either before or following his adoption of his identity as the Masked Man) saved Tonto's life, so Tonto returned the favour. The two became close friends. On the radio show Tonto was Potawatomi (whose homeland is in the upper Midwest, rather than Texas), although books about The Lone Ranger identified him as Apache. The television series never mentioned the tribe to which Tonto belonged.
The Lone Ranger proved to be an enormous success on radio, so that with the advent of network broadcasts in the United States a television adaptation was inevitable. The TV show debuted in 1949, featuring Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger. In an era when most Native Americans in film were being played by individuals with no Native heritage whatsoever, Tonto was actually played by a Native American--Jay Siverheels was a Mohawk from Ontario who had been working in film since 1937. Tonto was then not only the first Native American character in a lead role on an American television series, but the first Native character to actually be played by a Native American.
On both the original radio show and the TV series, Tonto would prove to be a very popular character with the general public. As the years rolled by, however, he would be seen by many Native Americans as a degrading character. Notable, native writer Sherman Alexie has even gone on record as hating the character of Tonto. It cannot be denied that the character of Tonto drew heavily upon Native American stereotypes prevalent in the Depression Era United States. Tonto is perhaps the best known example of the faithful Native American companion in Anglo-American pop culture. Like many Native American characters in mid-20th century American pop culture, Tonto spoke few words and when he did it was always in the broken English common to Native American characters in film at the time. An example of this can be found in the second episode of the TV show, "The Lone Ranger Fights On," when The Lone Ranger and Tonto first saw the horse who would be named "Silver." Of the horse Tonto says, "Him a beauty. Like mountain with snow--silver-white." While Tonto's tribe was said to be Potawatomi on the radio show and Apache in books, it was never acknowledged in the TV series--Native culture played no real role in Tonto's character. In some respects he was a very shallow character, with no culture of his own and no life beyond being The Lone Ranger's companion.
While much of the character of Tonto's behaviour was extremely stereotypical, I must also point out that he also had many positive attributes. Although often termed The Lone Ranger's "sidekick," he was actually more of a companion or friend. The Lone Ranger certainly did not order him around as Batman might Robin or Captain America might Bucky. Indeed, in his own way Tonto was as effective at fighting crime on the Plains as The Lone Ranger. He was intelligent, resourceful, and brave. This was a stark contrast to many of the Native characters current at the time of his creation in 1933, who were either savages intent on killing "palefaces" or drunken buffoons played for comedy. Tonto can then be seen as a transitional character, one who has the attributes of a stereotype, yet also has positive characteristics that set him apart from those stereotypes. Here it should perhaps be pointed out that Jay Silverheels himself often poked fun at his most famous character, and would be one of the first actors to fight the stereotyping of Natives in the media.
It was in the 1955-1956 that four series (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and Brave Eagle) all debuted, beginning a massive cycle towards "adult Westerns (as opposed to the Western TV shows made for children, such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid)." Of the four series, Cheyenne and Brave Eagle would be significant in the portrayal of Natives on the small screen. The first hour long Western (Gunsmoke was only a half hour in length at the time), Cheyenne followed the adventures of drifter Cheyenne Brodie. Cheyenne's family had been massacred by Cheyenne (Clint Walker), who then reared him as one of their own. The series took a slightly more enlightened view of Natives at the time, portraying them sympathetically. Interestingly enough, while Cheyenne's ancestry was Northern European, actor Clint Walker himself is one quarter Cherokee in descent!
The last of the Western series to debut in the 1955-1956 season, Brave Eagle is even more pertinent in the history of Native Americans on American network broadcast television. Not only was the TV series told from the Native American viewpoint, but it was the first American television series in prime time to feature a Native American lead character. Brave Eagle followed the adventures of the title character, a Cheyenne chief fighting to defend his homeland against the encroachment of settlers. White Eagle himself was played by an actor with not one drop of Native blood--Keith Larsen was Norwegian in descent. Others in the cast, however, were Native Americans. Brave Eagle's romantic interest, Morning Star, was played by Kim Winona, who was Sioux. Keena, Brave Eagle's foster son, was played by Anthony Numkena, who is Hopi. Brave Eagle was a very daring show at the time, not simply in portraying the Cheyenne sympathetically, but in featuring them as the heroes of the series, fighting to defend their land against encroachment from settlers. It might have been too daring for the time. It only lasted one season.
The 1956-1957 season would see the debut of a syndicated series based on John Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. Produced by ITC Entertainment in Britain and filmed in Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans followed the adventures of Hawkeye (John Hart) and Chingachgook (Lon Chaney Jr.) in New York's Hudson Valley in the 1750's. To a large degree the series took a sympathetic view of Native Americans, although at the same time it often featured Hawkeye and Chingachgook defending settlers against Huron raids. Sadly, the series seemed to indicate that "good" Native Americans cooperated with the settlers, while "bad" ones did not. IT was a trope often repeated on Western shows throughout the Fifties and Sixties.
A more remarkable series dealing with Native Americans debuted on ABC during the same season. In 1950 Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler starred in the classic film Broken Arrow. Broken Arrow was one of the first movies to portray Native Americans sympathetically, centring on the historic relationship between Cochise and "Indian" agent Tom Jeffords. The TV series based on the movie also portrayed a fictionalised version of the relationship between Cochise (Michael Ansara) and Jeffords (John Lupton). Like Brave Eagle before it, the settlers were often the villains on Broken Arrow. Fortunately, it would meet with a bit more success than Brave Eagle. Broken Arrow ran two seasons on ABC, and was reran on Sunday afternoons in the 1959-1960 season and again in the summer of 1960.
The ongoing (and extremely prolific) cycle towards Western TV series in the Fifties insured that Native American characters would be seen on American network broadcast television each and every week. For the most part this would take the form of guest appearances with Native American characters as either friend or foe. Inevitably there would be shows which would feature Native American characters in lead roles. Among these was Yancy Derringer, which ran during the 1958-1959 season. Yancy Derringer was based on a Richard Sales short story and featured Jock Mahoney as the title character, an adventurer who owned a riverboat based in New Orleans. Yancy was assisted by his friend Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah (X Brands), a Pawnee. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was apparently mute, as he never spoke and communicated only with gestures. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was yet another manifestation of the loyal Native American companion.
A show which debuted in the following 1959-1960 season would prove to be one of the strangest series to feature a Native American character in the lead. Among the first season episodes of The Rifleman was an episode entitled The Indian, in which Michael Ansara played Deputy Marshall Sam Buckhart. Sam Buckhart was an Apache who as a youth saved the life of a Calvary officer. When the officer died he left Buckhart a large sum of money, which Buckhart used to attend private schools and Harvard. He then returned to New Mexico to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Buckhart would prove popular enough to appear again on The Rifleman, in the first season episode "The Raid." Buckhart then proved popular enough that he was given his own series, Law of the Plainsman, which debuted on October 1, 1959. While Natives were portrayed sympathetically on the series, there would be those odd times when Buckhart would actually have to deal with hostile Natives, then serving the interests of the United States rather than his fellow Native Americans. Law of the Plainsman only lasted one season.
The first cycle towards Western TV shows ended in 1960, after producing numerous series in the genre. This did not mean that Native Americans would cease to be seen on American network broadcast television. Some shows from the first cycle from the first cycle of Westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, would remain on the air for years. In 1965 a new cycle towards Westerns would begin that would produce a new, if smaller, crop of Westerns. In fact, the Sixties would even see Native American characters featured in settings outside of frontier dramas and Westerns.
It was in the 1962-1963 season that Gunsmoke added a character who was part Native American to its cast. The character of blacksmith Quint Asper was born of a father of Northern European descent and a mother of Comanche descent. The character was played by a young Burt Reynolds, who is a quarter Cherokee in ancestry. As Dodge City's blacksmith, Quint was a very important character. In fact, he often assisted Marshal Matt Dillon as a deputy. Reynolds remained with Gunsmoke until the end of the 1964-1965 season.
Native Americans would play a large role in the frontier drama, Daniel Boone, which debuted in the 1964-1965 season. In fact, for the first of the series' six seasons, a Native American character numbered among its leads. Mingo was a half Cherokee who was educated at Oxford in England, but chose to return to North America to live in the ways of his people. Mingo was Daniel Boone's comrade in arms on the vast majority of the show's episodes, making him yet another manifestation of the faithful Native American companion. That having been said, Mingo was a far cry from such Native American companions as Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah. He did not speak in broken English; in fact, he spoke very proper English with an English accent (he was educated at Oxford, after all). Mingo was not a man of few words and was actually more talkative than many of the settlers on the show. Mingo also had his own mind, actually disagreeing with Daniel Boone on occasion.
The character of Mingo can be criticised for a few reasons. The first is that he is yet another Native character helping the settlers. Unlike Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah, Mingo did have a life of his own, but much of his time was spent aiding Daniel Boone. The second is that although Mingo is Cherokee, he displays very little in the way of the cultural traits of Cherokee. Indeed, I must point out that Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. The third reason is that Mingo is yet another example of what I call "redface"--an individual with no Native blood playing a Native American character. Ed Ames was one of singing artists The Ames Brothers, who were of Russian Jewish descent. Of course, it must be pointed out that like Michael Ansara and Ricardo Montalban in their portrayals of Natives, Ed Ames endowed Mingo with a dignity and respect that was sorely lacking in many Native American characters of the time.
Over all Daniel Boone offered a more balanced view of Native Americans than many series. Natives such as the Shawnee and Cherokee were most often portrayed sympathetically. That having been said, Daniel Boone could be wildly inaccurate in its portrayal of Native cultures. As I said, Mingo dressed like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And the Shawnee were often portrayed as living in tipis and dressing as Plains Natives like the Sioux. I must also point out that the show tended to oversimplify Daniel Boone's relations with the Natives (especially the Shawnee), which were considerably more complicated than portrayed on the show.
The 1965-1966 season saw the debut of a series which featured several Native American characters in lead roles. It would also become one of those series most often cited when mentioning offensive Native American stereotypes. The comedy F Troop followed the adventures of a fictional Cavalry unit of that name in the fictional Army post of Fort Dodge, Kansas. Its commanding officer was the incredibly inept, accident prone Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), whose command was complicated by the often illegal money making schemes of his NCOs, Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch). Sgt. O'Rourke and Cpl. Agarn were often assisted in their schemes by the local Native American tribe, the fictional Hekawis. In fact, the Hekawis were full partners in O'Rourke Enterprises, which produced such products as moonshine.
In some respects it is easy to see why some would be offended by F Troop. The Hekawis lived in tipis and dressed like Plains Natives, just as many of the generic Native American characters did in the 20th Century (of course, here it must be pointed out that the Hekawis appear to have been a Plains tribe anyway). The Hekawis generally spoke in the same broken English that Tonto and other Native characters did, although it is possible this was simply an act to fool the Cavalry and the settlers (in asides they often spoke very proper English). In its casting, F Troop is a perfect example of redface, as the vast majority of Native characters are played by Jewish comics (here one must wonder if this wasn't meant as a parody on the notion that Native Americans are the 13th, lost tribe of Israel).
That having been said, I must confess I find it difficult to be too offended by F Troop. The show was so broad and outlandish that it must be considered a fantasy similar to many other sitcoms of the era such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and The Monkees. The characters on F Troop were no more meant to represent real people than Giligan or Elly Mae Clampett. And while the Hekawis do conform to some Native stereotypes (living in tipis, broken English, funny animal names, et. al.), they also depart from them in dramatic ways. Indeed, unlike many of the generic "Indians" appearing in American pop culture in the 20th Century, the Hekawis actually do have their own cultural identity, albeit one unlike any actual Naive tribe. Namely, the Hekawis are extreme capitalists, whose motto may well be "Make money, not love or war." Through the Hekawis, F Troop was more making fun of such capitalists as Thurston Howell III and Daddy Warbucks than anything else. In some respects, through the Hekawis, F Troop even parodied Native stereotypes themselves, among them the "wise elder" stereotype through the character of Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova). Parmenter and O'Rourke often came to Wild Eagle for advice, whereupon he would utter some old Hekawi saying, of which he would often confess to not knowing the meaning. Here it must also be pointed out that the Hekawis were the most intelligent characters on the show, quite the opposite of many Westerns which portrayed Northern Europeans as superior in intellect to the "primitive" Natives.
The 1966-1967 season would see a very historic moment with regards to Native Americans on network broadcast television. On September 8, 1966 Hawk debuted on ABC. Like a few shows before it Hawk featured a lead character who was a Native; unlike any show before it, it was set in the present day. Hawk followed the adventure of Detective Lt. John Hawk, a half Iroquois serving on the New York City Police Department. Hawk was played by Burt Reynolds in his first lead role in a television show. While Hawk was the first American television show to feature a Native lead character set in the present day and while the character was played by someone of Native descent himself, the show generally did not explore Iroquois ethnicity, nor did it delve into Native American issues. Hawk only lasted 17 episodes.
During the 1966-1967 season, Hawk was not the only show to feature a Native American in a present day setting. In the episode "The Battle of Mayberry" of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy's son Opie stirs up trouble among the townsfolk of Mayberry when he researches an early battle settlers had with the Cherokee, including the town's only Native resident Tom Strongbow (played by Norman Alden). Sadly, Tom Strongbow would not become a recurring character on the series, only appearing in "The Battle of Mayberry."
Another series would feature a Native American character in a milieu other than the Old West or the present day. The Sixties would see a cycle towards war television shows that produced such series as Combat, Twelve O'Clock High, and Rat Patrol. Among these shows was Garrison's Gorillas, a series which sought to capitalise on the popularity of the film The Dirty Dozen. The show centred on a team of commandos gathered from stateside prisons and commanded by Lt. Craig Garrison (Ron Harper) during World War II . The team consisted of four men: Actor (Cesare Danova), the Italian American con man; Casino (Rudy Solari), the safecracker; Chief (Brendon Boone), a Native American proficient with switchblades; and Goniff (Christopher Cary), the Yiddish speaking cat burglar. Unfortunately Chief was a bit of a stereotype. He spoke very little, never laughed, and was very proficient with knives. Garrison's Gorillas lasted only one season.
At the end of the Sixties, Native American characters were still frequently seen on American network broadcast television. It would be last time that Native Americans would be seen in substantial numbers on American, prime time TV shows. While Native American characters would continue to appear in shows in the Seventies, the Eighties would see them all but disappear.
It is a sad fact of the history of network broadcast television in the United States that minorities have not fared well on the small screen. For several years the Ralph J. Bunche Centre conducted a study, entitled Prime Time in Black and White, for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Its findings for the 2002 television season alone were alarming. The presence of African Americans on television during that season was actually quite large--they accounted for 17% of all TV characters as compared to around 12% of the American population. The presence of Asian Americans on television had improved considerably from past years; at the time 3% of all television characters were Asian Americans, as compared to 4% of the population. That having been said, other minorities did not fare so well. While 13% of the American population at the time was Hispanic, only 3% of all characters on television were Hispanic. As to Native Americans, out of 3656 characters not one was Native American, despite the fact that 0.8% of the American population is Native (here I must stress that this does not count those who are part Native).
Sadly, in some respects the results of Prime Time in Black and White is not surprising given the history of minorities on American network broadcast television. African Americans were a rarity on network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties. Even when they became more commonplace in the Seventies, many African American characters were still outright stereotypes. After The Goldbergs left the air in 1956, Jewish characters were non-existent on American network broadcast television until the debut of Barney Miller in 1975. They are now much more common (Ziva David on NCIS, Lisa Cuddy and James Wilson on House, John Munch on Law and Order: SVU, and the entire Eppes family on Numb3rs, among others, are all Jewish). Sadly, Hispanic characters are still a rarity on American network television; in fact, the only ones that come to my mind are the characters on CSI: Miami. This is particularly disappointing given the fact that while Hispanics make up 48.5% of the total population of Los Angeles, I cannot think of any Hispanic characters currently on television set in that city. As to Native Americans, except for John Redcorn on King of the Hill (which was on the air in 2002--I guess Prime Time in Black and White must have missed him), there simply do not seem to be any.
While the underrepresentation of any minority on American network broadcast television disturbs me, I must confess to being particularly disturbed by the nearly total absence of Native Americans on American network television. Much of this is due to personal reasons on my part. A good number of the original settlers of my hometown in the 1820's were Cherokee. When I was growing up I would guess that, after African Americans, Native Americans comprised the largest minority in the county. Indeed, I myself am 1/8 Tsalagi (which is Cherokee for, well, "Cherokee"). The nearly total absence of Native Americans on American network broadcast television then strikes a very discordant chord with me.
Redface and Stereotypes in the Fifties and Sixties
Native Americans were not always a rarity on American network broadcast television. In fact, in the Fifties and Sixties Natives were very common on the small screen. Sadly, the vast majority of Native American characters during this time period did not appear in TV shows set in the present day, but instead on the various Westerns and frontier dramas which aired at the time. It was the year 1955 that saw the beginning of a cycle towards Western shows, what may have been the largest single cycle towards a particular genre in the history of American television. In the 1958-1959 season alone over 25 Western shows were on the air each week! While many shows (such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza) from television's first cycle towards Westerns were still on the air, a new cycle towards Westerns began in 1965. Although much, much smaller than the first cycle towards Westerns, this cycle still produced many shows. Given the prominent role played by Natives in the American West, Native American characters appeared frequently on many Westerns and they were sometimes even regulars.
Sadly, while Native American characters were frequently seen on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties, many times Native characters would be outright stereotypes and all too often Native characters would be played by actors who were not even Native in descent. In the Fifties and Sixties it was commonplace in American motion pictures and television for actors of Northern and Southern European descent to play any ethnicity (except for African Americans), both with and without makeup. Asian characters were played by actors ranging from Warner Oland to Marlo Thomas (a practice now termed "yellowface"). Hispanic characters were played by actors ranging from J. Carrol Naish to Natalie Wood (a practice Raquel of Out of the Past terms "brownface"). It was no different for Native American characters, who were more often than not played by actors who had no Native blood whatsoever. If the practice of actors of European playing Asian characters can be called "yellowface," then I suppose the practice of actors of European or Asian descent playing Natives could be termed "redface."
The practice of actors of purely European or Asian descent playing Native American characters was so prevalent on the small screen of the Sixties that certain actors played Native American on more than one occasion, despite the fact that they were not Native. While Ricardo Montalban was born in Mexico, his descent was purely Castilian--he had no Native blood whatsoever. Despite this, he played Native characters on such shows as The 20th Century Fox Hour, Bonanza, The Great Adventure, and Gunsmoke. Michael Ansara was born in Syria, yet he first came to fame playing Cochise in the TV show Broken Arrow. He would also play Native American characters on such shows as Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, and Here Come the Brides. Montalban and Ansara were not alone, as many other actors who were not Natives also played Native American characters more than once. Here I must point out that while I find the practice of "redface" objectionable, being the great actors that they were, both Ricardo Montalban and Michael Ansara endowed their Native American characters with dignity and respect, never playing them purely as stereotypes.
Not only were Native American characters in Fifties and Sixties TV shows often played by actors who were not Natives, but many times Natives were portrayed as outright stereotypes. Most of these stereotypes, were old by the time network television broadcasts began on a regular basis in the United States. Indeed, the hostile "Indian" was a fixture of many Western novels and movies over the years. Fortunately, by the Fifties Hollywood had become a bit more sophisticated in they stopped portraying Native Americans as one dimensional villains very on a frequent basis, but such portrayals still persisted to a small degree on American network television. Even more enlightened television shows could often be guilty of such offensive portrayals. Gunsmoke was usually much more sophisticated in its approach to Native Americans, yet it produced at least one episode in which Native Americans are portrayed in a very unsavoury light. "Hawk" centred on Phoebe Clifford (played by Louise Latham), a women bitter at life because her family was killed by Apaches and she was then subsequently captured by them and raped repeatedly. She must then reconcile with the half-Apache son she had from her time spent amongst the tribe. While the episode seeks to condemn racism, in many ways it simply reaffirms it. For the most part, the Apaches are portrayed as a malevolent force throughout the episode. While such simplistic portrayals of Natives as savages were rare in most of the television Westerns of the Fifties and Sixties, they did occur from time to time.
Much more common than the portrayal of Native Americans as the single minded savages was another offensive stereotype, that of the "drunken Indian." More often than not, the drunken Indian is treated purely as a source of comedy. A prime example of this was the premiere episode of the Sixties series Laredo, "Lazyfoot, Where Are You." In the episode Texas Rangers Bennett (Neville Brand), Cooper (Peter Brown), and Smith (Joe Riley) are sent out to capture the Native American Lazyfoot, more known for his boozing than his raiding settlements. Although generally played for laughs as in "Lazyfoot, Where Are You," drunken Native Americans were sometimes portrayed as malevolent savages as well. An example of this is the episode of Branded entitled "The Test," in which Jason McCord (Chuck Connors) saved a priest from an attack by whiskey loving Comanche.
Both the hostile Native savage and the drunk Native American are extremely offensive stereotypes, ones that are recognised as offensive by many people today. Another Native American stereotype, common to American television in the Fifties and Sixties, is in some ways even more offensive, but not often recognised as such. It is the stereotype that all Native Americans essentially share the same culture. Regardless of the tribe, television series in the Fifties and Sixties often showed Native Americans as living in tipis, wearing feathers, wearing war bonnets, riding horses, and so on. Essentially, some television shows of the time portrayed Native Americans as if they were all Sioux, regardless of the tribe to which they belonged. A perfect example of this was the frontier drama Daniel Boone, in which some episodes portrayed the Shawnee as living in tipis and dressing as if they were straight from the Great Plains. In truth, the Shawnee lived in wigwams and their traditional dress is very different than the Sioux. The stereotype of all Native Americans having the same culture is offensive in that it ignores the often vast cultural differences between Native peoples and as a result trivialises those differences. In truth, there is as much variety in Native cultures as there is in European cultures. Portraying all Native Americans as living in tipis is no more accurate than portraying all Europeans as living in Viking longhouses.
Other, more positive Native American stereotypes found on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties were actually much more common. In fact, some of the most common Native American stereotypes found on American television were those of the "noble savage," "the faithful Native American companion," and "the wise elder." Here I must point out that the noble savage stereotype has been applied to many different peoples besides Native Americans and is actually rather ancient. In Germania the Roman scholar Tacitus essentially portrayed the Germanic peoples (from whom the English, Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavian peoples descend) as noble savages. Eventually philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who never actually used the phrase "noble savage") and Thomas Hobbes would fully develop the idea of the "noble savage," a romanticised ideal of an uncivilised human being, innately good by virtue of not having been corrupted by civilisation. Not only would the idea of the noble savage give rise to such characters as Mowgli of The Jungle Book and Tarzan, but it would result in stereotypes of Native Americans, African natives, Pacific Islanders and so on.
With regards to television, the portrayal of Native Americans as noble savages occurred extremely frequently on American television, so much so that it must be one of the most common stereotypes of Natives in the medium. Probably every Western aired on American network broadcast television has probably featured at least one Native noble savage. Examples are easy to find: the episode "The Intruders" of The Virginian (Black Feather, chief of the Sioux, wishing to make peace with the settlers); the episode "Day of Reckoning" of Bonanza (the Native Matsou saves Ben Cartwright and is rewarded with a parcel of land on the Ponderosa); the episode "Kioga" of Gunsmoke (a Pawnee named Kioga seeks to avenge his father's death); and so on.
The faithful Native American companion could be considered an extension of the noble savage stereotype. And like the noble savage stereotype, it was old when the television networks began regular broadcasts in the United States. It at least dates back to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826, in which Natty Bumpo is accompanied by the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas. It was also one of the earliest Native stereotypes ever seen on television. The Lone Ranger had debuted on radio in 1933. It was in 1949 that the series made the move to television. Central to The Lone Ranger was Tonto, The Masked Man's loyal Native American companion. Tonto was portrayed as an intelligent character, one who was nearly the equal of The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, he also spoke in the broken English typical of Native Americans in film, radio, and even television, for years. Tonto would not be the only faithful Native American companion on network television in the United States. He was followed by Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah on Yancy Derringer (who didn't speak broken English--in fact, he didn't speak at all), and Mingo of Daniel Boone (who actually spoke the King's English better than most of the settlers).
The wise elder can also be considered an extension of the noble savage stereotype. It can also be traced back to Last of the Mohicans in the form of Chingachgook. The wise elder occurs frequently not only in TV shows of the Fifties and Sixties, but even in shows up to the current day. The wise elder, usually in the form of a chief, was a fixture on Bonanza, most notably in the episode In the Defence of Honour. Another example of the wise elder can be found in the episode "The Ancient Warrior" from the Seventies series Kung Fu, in which Caine helps a elderly Native American seek the burial site of his people. In the Eighties and the Nineties the wise elder would give rise to the stereotype of the magical Native American--Natives with some sort of supernatural ability.
As mentioned above, most stereotypes of Native Americans were old by the time the networks began regular television broadcasts in the United States. These stereotypes had emerged from the politics and social movements in the United States in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was perhaps the doctrine of manifest destiny that would result in the stereotype of the hostile Native American. Manifest destiny emerged in 1839 as the idea that it was the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The expansion which resulted from this doctrine naturally resulted in conflicts with Native Americans, who quite expectedly did not wish to give up their land for settlers. The hostile Native American then emerged as a stereotype, often utilised as propaganda against the Natives themselves. In the 20th Century, when the United States became more enlightened about such things as racism and ethnicity, the stereotype of the hostile Native American would lose favour with society and would be replaced by more positive stereotypes: the noble savage, the faithful Native American companion, and the wise elder. Growing interest in Native American culture and the New Age movement would create the most recent stereotype, the magical Native American. The magical Native American emerged from an oversimplification of the myriad religious beliefs, rituals, and religions of the Native peoples (here I must point out that this was not unique to the Native Americans--the New Age movement oversimplified the beliefs of many peoples).
While Native Americans did not always fare well on American network television in the Fifties and Sixties, they were seen frequently in television shows of the time. In fact, in the Fifties and Sixties Native American characters were not only supporting characters in television shows, but would even appear as the lead characters in a few series.