May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

The rugged Western fit early television like well-worn jeans. The backdrops were simple and cheap, the natural stage grand and free, and the action nonstop. Frontier life corralled millions of TV homes of the 1950s, a worried time that took comfort in the old traditions of firm laws, swift justice, warm fires, long courtships and short hair. TV Westerns spurred Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen to gallop off to movie stardom, reassured us with the strong-willed paternalism of Ward Bond and Chuck Connors, made us wink along with the sly Mavericks—as though already seeing the tumultuous decade that lay ahead—and turned James Arness into a near-mythic Figure. By 1958, 31 of the 60 weekly prime-time shows were Westerns. In a major production change, most were made in Hollywood on film, and seven of them dominated the Top 10 like colossal Matt Dillon bestriding that dusty street in Dodge City. Even from afar, these shows look good: good men, good women, good scripts and usually good endings. Too good to last. In 10 years only eight Westerns were left, and by 1980, they had been gunned down to a man. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the real shooting had ended in one Asian country, had not begun in another and the Western made TV reach for the skies.

The Rifleman (Chuck Connors, right) was a widower raising son Mark on a New Mexico spread. In case of trouble (and there was plenty), he carried a modified, lever-action Winchester, which fired off a round every three-tenths of a second. Young Mark weekly took home-lessons in honesty, hard work and trust. Dennis Hopper (left) helped him learn on the pilot but didn’t make the series.

Six-foot-six Clint Walker (left, with a stand-in in elevator shoes) was Cheyenne, a drifter who looked for work and ound trouble. After three years Walker quit. He wouldn’t give most of his personal appearance fees to Warner Bros. as his contract required and wanted a bigger rerun cut. Replaced by Ty Hardin, he was back in a year, still unhappy (“I’m like a caged animal”). Ty spun off into Bronco.

Six-foot-four Clint Eastwood (left) had been dumped by a film studio when he signed on as cattle-driver Rowdy Yates in Rawhide. By show’s end in 1966, he was a movie star. Rawhide offered little gunplay, focusing instead on odd characters the drivers met on the trail. Eric Fleming (right) quit in 1965, upset over the hoopla about Eastwood, and the next summer drowned making a movie.

Tales of Wells Fargo came out with guns blazing (and kids watching on-set) in 1957, but the action slowed in 1961 with a move to Saturday night. In that slot, agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson, inset) was relocated to San Francisco and forced to fend off the advances of the town widow, but not for long. The show died in a year.

Steve McQueen played a bounty hunter with a “Mare’s-Leg” sawed-off carbine, a steel-rimmed hat (designed by the actor) and a quiet manner (less dialogue than any other show). Wanted: Dead or Alive was one of TV’s most violent Westerns, with three murders per episode. McQueen kept the hat and gun till he died.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was TV’s first Western based—more or less—on fact. For six years it followed Hugh O’Brien from Ellsworth (where he got his Buntline Special .45s) to Dodge City and, finally, Tombstone. Long live his fame, long live his glory!

By 1958 Danny Thomas, Walter Brennan’s Real McCoys and I’ve Got a Secret were the only noncowboys surviving in TV’s Top 10. That year some of TV’s best (and biggest) draws slapped leather on a Warner Bros, lot—from left, Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot); Wayde Preston (Colt .45); Jack Kelly and James Garner (Maverick); Ty Hardin (Bronco); Peter Brown and John Russell (Lawman).

Have Gun, Will Travel’s Paladin (Richard Boone) was an elegant lover of wine, books and women. But when he flashed his calling card (a white chess knight, dumbo), he was a gun for hire—vs. bad guys only.

For eight long winters Ward Bond led his Wagon Train out of St. Joe to California, overcoming illness, Indians and thin story lines with the help of the biggest budget in the West.

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