The Western Boom on American Television in the Fifties
In Billy Wilder's classic film The Apartment (1960) there is a scene in which C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) settles down to watch television. With the exception of one TV station showing Grand Hotel (1932), Baxter finds that every single channel is showing a Western. While the scene is played for comedy, there is a good deal of truth in it. In 1960 American broadcast network television was filled with Westerns, so much so that there was at least one on every single night of the week.
It was sixty years ago in September that three Western shows debuted on the American broadcast networks. What set these three Westerns apart from earlier Westerns that had aired on American television is that they were made primarily for adults rather than children. While The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne only received moderate ratings in their first seasons (none of them ranked in the top thirty shows for the year), all three shows would become hits soon enough. The three shows precipitated a boom in Westerns that would last for the next five years and produce around forty different shows. It was probably the largest single cycle in television history.
Today it might seem curious that three "adult Westerns" TV shows debuted in a single season in the mid-Fifties. After all, for much of the Thirties and Forties many, if not most Westerns were made for children. It was the era of the B Western and such singing cowboys as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The B Westerns would fill the television schedules of both local stations and networks in the late Forties and early Fifties. In fact, the earliest Western TV shows aired on the networks were made for children, such shows as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. By the early Fifties, however, it would seem that the "adult Western" was an idea whose time had come.
Of course, adult Westerns were nothing new even in the early Fifties. In fact, the novel that is considered the first true Western, The Virginian, was written for adults, and most of its adaptations (such as the 1929 and 1946 film adaptations) were made for adults. Even as B Westerns and Western serials were being churned out for children in the Thirties and Forties, adult Western movies were being made. Cimarron (1931), Destry Rides Again (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and any Western made by John Ford number among the many examples of Westerns that were made for an adult audience.
While the idea of the adult Western was nothing new, it appears to have gained more prominence in the early Fifties. In fact, the year 1952 would appear to be a pivotal one for the adult Western. It was that year that the radio show Gunsmoke debuted on CBS Radio and that year that the movie High Noon was released. The radio show Gunsmoke and High Noon would be followed almost immediately by more high profile adult Westerns. The movie Shane was released in 1953. It was during the 1953-1954 season that television even ventured into the territory of adult Westerns. The U.S. Steel Hour aired the episode "Last Notch", which was about a gunfighter who did not particularly care for gunfighting. Given the relatively high profiles of adult Westerns in various media during the early Fifties, it should perhaps be no surprise that television would debut three different adult Western TV shows during the 1955-1956 season.
Here it should also be pointed out that the rise of the adult Western on American television was probably helped by the rise of filmed, episodic series in the early to mid-Fifties. In the late Forties and early Fifties, at least with regards to drama, American television was dominated by anthology shows, shows that presented a different story, usually with a different cast, each week. The anthology shows were usually broadcast live. By the mid-Fifties, these live anthology shows had started to run their course. Both Kraft Television Theatre and Philco Television Playhouse ended their runs in 1955. Increasingly their place was taken by filmed, episodic shows--that is, filmed series with continuing characters. With episodic series increasingly dominating American television, it was perhaps natural for the networks to turn to the familiar genre of the Western for new shows.
While the adult Western seems to have been an idea whose time had come in the mid-Fifties, the three Westerns that debuted in the fall of 1955 (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne) were not immediately hits. All three received only moderate ratings and none of them ranked in the top thirty shows for the year. It was perhaps because of the success of High Noon, Shane, and the radio show Gunsmoke, as well as the newfound prominence of the adult Western, that three more Westerns debuted in the 1955-1957 season. That same season both Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ranked in the top twenty--Gunsmoke at no. 7 and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp at no. 18. The boom in television Westerns was on.
Indeed, nine different Westerns debuted in the fall of 1957. What is more, there was at least one Western on every night of the week. While some of these Westerns have long since been forgotten, three would prove to be highly successful and are still seen today. The semi-anthology Wagon Train debuted on NBC, while Have Gun--Will Travel debuted on CBS and Maverick debuted on ABC.
Given the number of Westerns that debuted in the 1957-1958 season one would think that the cycle had peaked that year, but ten more Westerns debuted during the 1958-1959 season. In fact, there were whole blocks of Westerns on certain nights of the week. On Sunday night ABC had a full two hours worth of Westerns with the hour long Maverick and half hour shows Lawman and Colt .45. On Tuesday ABC had another two hours worth of Westerns with the rotating hour long shows Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, and Bronco, and the half hour shows The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and The Rifleman. CBS had ninety minutes worth of Westerns on Saturday night with Wanted Dead or Alive, Have Gun-Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.
Given the number of Westerns that debuted in the 1958-1959, it should come as no surprise that some would have lasting success. The Rifleman proved to be a huge success in the ratings upon its debut and would go on to have a highly successful syndication run. Rawhide debuted as a mid-season replacement and also saw some success in the ratings. It would also have a good deal of success in syndication. Two other shows would develop cult followings: Wanted Dead or Alive, the show that made Steve McQueen a star, and Bat Masterson.
The 1959-1960 season may have been the height of the cycle towards Westerns on American television in the late Fifties. Ten Western shows debuted on the three networks in the fall of 1959 alone. In fact, as of that fall twenty eight different Westerns were on the air. Not surprisingly, like the 1958-1959 season, there were entire blocks of Westerns on the schedule. Perhaps the most notable Western to debut during the season was Bonanza. Contrary to popular belief Bonanza was not the first TV series broadcast in colour from its very beginning, but it was definitely first TV show broadcast in colour from its beginning to have any success. In fact, it may well be the highest rated show of the Sixties. It was also the second longest running Western, ending its run after 14 seasons (Gunsmoke beat it with 20). Another Western debuting on NBC, Laramie, would develop a cult following.
The 1960-1961 season marked the end of the Western boom on television. Only six new Westerns debuted that fall. None of them met with any success and the longest any of them lasted was two seasons. If there was any doubt that the 1960-1961 marked the end of the cycle towards Westerns in the late Fifties, it could be dismissed with the 1961-1962 season. Only one Western debuted on the broadcast networks in the fall of 1960: Frontier Circus.
In all the cycle towards Westerns on American broadcast television lasted about five years, longer than many cycles on television (most do well to last two or three years). It produced around forty different shows, which may well be more than any other cycle in the history of television. Surprisingly given the sheer number of Westerns that aired during the decade, there tended to be a sameness about many of the shows. Many centred on drifters and gunslingers (in the Western TV shows the two seemed to only differ in that the gunslingers were professionals...) or lawmen (sheriffs, city marshals, U.S. Marshals, and so on).
Perhaps because of the similarities between many Westerns, producers sometimes tried to make their shows different with the use of a "gimmick". This was true of even of some of the best Western shows on television. Lucas McCain on The Rifleman stood out from other Western heroes in that he preferred his specially modified rifle to the use of six guns. Bat Masterson centred on a hero who preferred to knock people out with his cane to using his gun. With some of the lesser Westerns the gimmicks could at times be far-fetched. On Hotel de Paree Sundance had a black Stetson lined with polished silver discs with which he could blind opponents.
It is notable that the Westerns that would see the most success were those that strayed from the drifter/gunslinger/lawmen tropes, those with very different premises. Wagon Train was a semi-anthology set around a wagon train. Maverick centred on Bart, Bret, and later Beau Maverick, gamblers who preferred to get out of situations with their wits and charm to the point that they almost never used guns. Have Gun--Will Travel centred on an intellectual hero who acted as a combination private detective and troubleshooter. Rawhide centred on a cattle drive.
It was perhaps because so many of the Westerns earlier in the cycle were more or less the same that the Western eventually began to evolve away from the drifter/gunfighter/lawman tropes. In the 1958-1959 season The Rifleman debuted. The show did not centre on a gunslinger or lawman, but instead on a widowed homesteader with a young son. While he was good with a rifle, there would be entire episodes where he didn't even use it. Debuting the following season, Laramie focused on a stage stop and small ranch. That same season saw the debut of Bonanza, the first of the ranch Westerns. There could be so little gunplay on Bonanza at times that it might be considered a period piece that happens to be set in 1860s Virginia City, Nevada as much as a Western.
It would be The Rifleman, Laramie, and Bonanza that would signal the path Westerns would take in the Sixties. Some of the most successful Westerns of the Sixties would be ranch Westerns akin to Bonanza: The Virginian, The Big Valley, and The High Chaparral. Those that weren't ranch Westerns sometimes departed significantly from the drifter/gunslinger/lawman tropes. The Wild Wild West was about two Secret Service agents and could be considered a forerunner of steampunk. Laredo did centre on Texas Rangers, but it was played largely as a comedy. Here it must be pointed out that while the Western boom of the Fifties ended in the 1960-1961 season, the success of Bonanza and The Virginian (which debuted in 1962) led to a new, but significantly smaller cycle towards Westerns in the mid-Sixties.
Not surprisingly given the sheer number of Westerns on the air in the late Fifties, there were studios that very nearly specialised in the genre during the boom. Among the first three TV shows ever produced by Warner Brothers was the Western Cheyenne. They would follow it up with several more Westerns, including Sugarfoot, Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, and Lawman. Four Star Television produced the popular Western anthology show Dick Powell's Zane Gray Theatre. They went on to produce such Westerns as Trackdown, Black Saddle, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo, Law of the Plainsman, and The Westerner. Revue, MCA's television production arm that would later become Universal Television, also produced a number of Westerns. In fact, even before the Western boom Revue had produced the children's Western The Adventures of Kit Carson. During the Western boom Revue produced several Western series, including Tales of Wells Fargo, The Restless Gun, Wagon Train, and Laramie.
The Western boom in the Fifties was not American broadcast television's first cycle. The late Forties had seen a cycle towards anthology shows and the late Forties to early Fifties had seen cycles towards suspense/horror anthologies and children's sci-fi shows. That having been said, at the time it was the largest single cycle television had seen and it seems likely that it remains the largest cycle in television history. With enough Westerns airing at any given time that there was at least one every night and lasting around five years, it would be hard to find any cycle in TV history that was bigger. Even the spy craze of the Sixties and the police procedural boom of the Naughts would appear to be dwarfed by the Western cycle of the Fifties. While many of the shows that emerged from the cycle are now forgotten, the Western boom of the Fifties produced a remarkable number of classic TV shows.