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On TV Westerns of the 1950s and '60s

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A Long Shot., Digital ID 1192624, New York Public LibraryQuestion: What phenomenon occured in 1949, exploded in 1959, and more or less faded in the late '60s? Answer: The TV western.

On June 24, 1949, Hopalong Cassidy, played by William Boyd, and his horse Topper, rode across the small screen and into the homes of western film lovers. Soon other TV western series such as Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, The Lone Ranger and The Rifleman would follow. By 1959, westerns became so popular that they dominated other prime time TV series. From 1949 to the late '60s, there were over 100 western series that aired on the networks.

Before television, the nation saw westerns at movie theaters and listened to them over the radio. When westerns started appearing on TV, viewers avidly waited for their favorites. In any one week, westerns often received the highest viewer ratings. Viewers were able to escape their humdrum lives to watch their favorite heroes overcome all adversaries. It was good vs. bad, hero vs. villain, in the old nineteenth-century west.

But it was much more than that. Early TV western series helped define America as a nation. Westerns sought to teach the good values of honesty and integrity, of hard work, of racial tolerance, of determination to succeed, and of justice for all. They were, in a sense, modern morality plays where heroes, strong, reliable, clear-headed and decent, fought their adversaries in the name of justice. At the show's end, moral lessons had been taught and learned.

One TV western that I particularly liked was The Lone Ranger with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Clayton Moore, in his biography I Was That Masked Man, he talks about how the role of the Lone Ranger actually changed his own life for the better. The Lone Ranger personified all that was good in people. He and Tonto would always save the day without sticking around for a "thank you." The Lone Ranger and Tonto had a strong sense of civil responsibility and humanitarianism and didn't need thanks for doing what they felt was their moral obligation. The Lone Ranger series would carry the theme of racial tolerance, a theme that was prevalent in many western series.

Another TV western that was and still is a favorite of mine is The Rifleman. The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors with Johnny Crawford as his son Mark. Mark McCain and his father Lucas, a widower and civil war veteran, have a strong father-son bond. Lucas, living on his ranch outside the town of North Fork in the New Mexico territory during the 1880s, teaches Mark the value of courage, honesty and tolerance. The bible and what it teaches is very important to both Lucas and Mark. Practically in each episode, there is reference to it. Lucas stresses to Mark the importance of law and order and serves as a role model when Lucas confronts some form of hostility, be it a hardened criminal or a person unaware of his or her unethical actions. The former is often unavoidably killed by Lucas (who only uses his rifle as a last resort) and the latter is usually taught a moral lesson and shown the right path.

Lucas is Mark's teacher — his guide. And yet Mark often takes the role of teacher and guide to his father who sometimes gets into a predicament or shows poor judgment. Both learn from the other and both portray very human qualities. Here we don't see near-perfect people solving problems with ease. Instead we see characters struggling with life's everyday problems. Lucas will often show frustration and anger at situations that he feels he cannot control. There are times, as in episode 123, where he will almost lose his sanity and actually cry when his son Mark is kidnapped. This is heart-rending, realistic drama played out by two actors who, in real life, were actually close friends. (Chuck Connors, who had his own family, always included Johnny Crawford in family outings.) 

Two episodes particularlyQueueQueue meaningful to me are numbers 110 ("Queue") and 123 ("A Friend in Need"). In "Queue," Wang Chi and his son Wang Lee hoped to settle in a friendly town and open a laundry. What they met with in each town was racial intolerance. North Fork was no different. Fergus, a resident of North Fork, and his son Noah, began harrassing Wang Chi and his son to the point where Wang Chi decided to once more move on. Lucas, Mark, Micah (North Fork's sheriff), and Millie, a store owner, persuaded them to stay. Aside, Mark told his father that he thought their way of dress strange and commented on the queue that Wang Chi and Wang Lee each had as tradition calls for. Lucas teaches Mark the importance of racial tolerance and that everybody is the same on the inside despite looking different on the outside. This the bible teaches: that one shouldn't show favoritism over another; to love your neighbor as yourself. At the episode's end, Wang Chi and Wang Lee settle there to the joy of the good residents of North Fork. Mark learns a good lesson and Fergus and his son, who did not learn anything, left North Fork in disgrace.

A Friend in NeedA Friend in NeedIn "A Friend in Need," we see the love and devotion Lucas has for Mark. As Lucas and Mark ride into town, a stranger watches their every move. At the same time, Neff Parker, a well-regarded resident of North Fork, tells Lucas that he needs more land to feed his cattle. Lucas has heard this before and tells Neff that he would never sell his land. They end their conversation with a laugh and a handshake. Lucas remains for a town meeting and sends Mark home. On his way, Mark is met by the stranger who forces Mark to go with him to an abandoned relay station. He tells Mark that if he refuses to go, his father would be killed. Lucas returns home, sees that Mark is not there, leaves a note, and begins looking for him.

The situation becomes desparate when Lucas and Micah cannot locate Mark. Returning home, Lucas sees that a note (left by the stranger) demanding $5000 for Mark's return has replaced Lucas's note. Lucas becomes frantic. In so many western movies, a male character standing 6'5" tall and well built would be mildly concerned, shrug it off as nothing crucial, and easily rescue his kidnapped son. The Rifleman, however, is so much more human. Lucas is beside himself, crying, lost, not knowing what to do, angry, forming his hands into fists... desparate, beyond reason. He realizes too that getting the $5000 is impossible until, in town, Neff Parker offers him the money. Lucas is grateful but refuses until another note is found in Micah's office stating where Mark is along with the demand once again for the ransom. Lucas, distraught over his son's life, offers to sell his ranch to Neff for the $5000. At first Neff protests but then agrees. Lucas signs a noteA Friend in NeedA Friend in Need of new ownership and, as demanded, rides out alone, money in hand. Reaching the relay station, Lucas puts the money where the stranger (Carl) could see it. Carl, on the roof, shot at Lucas but Lucas returned fire, killing Carl. Lucas then finds Mark, thanking God that his son is safe. At that moment, Neff rode in and called Carl's name. Lucas realized that Neff was in on this plan to secure his ranch. Lucas silently approached Neff who thought Lucas dead, and slapped him to the ground. Mark stood, very surprised, and said "everybody liked him so much." Back in town, Mark added "seems like you can't trust your friends." Millie, Micah and Lucas corrected him. "Mark — you can't judge your friends by Neff Parker. And we're all your friends." Mark questioned how his father can be his friend. "Well, let's just say that I'm your friendly Pa!"

Should you decide to give the old classic TV westerns a chance, a station that is western-friendly is:

ME-TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) airs Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Branded, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Gunsmoke, The Rebel, The Wild Wild West and yes, The Rifleman.

Other networks that show television western programming are RTV (Retro television Network) and TVLAND, both of which offer limited western series.

Should you want to borrow western TV series DVDs, branches of The New York Public Library offer many classic western television series. Check the catalog for The Big Valley, Bonanza, Cheyenne, The Cisco Kid, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Laredo, The Life and Legend of Wyatt EarpThe Lone Ranger, Rawhide, The Virginian, and Wagon Train.

You can also find books about television westerns at the library.

In addition, many of the western series can be found on the Internet, including shows' histories, cast bios, and the shows' original commercials and theme songs. YouTube can be great for seeing complete episodes. You can also browse the Internet Archive.

So pardners, hope you enjoyed this little bit of nostalgia. See ya all at the next roundup. And with Roy and Dale, I'll now sign off.  

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