TV's greatest westerns

Slide show: As "Justified" returns for Season 3, a look back at the classics that defined the genre

  • 10. “Have Gun – Will Travel” (1957-1963)

    With a title that was inspired by an advertising slogan (and would go on to inspire many more), the iconic “Have Gun” came out of the end of the first wave of TV westerns with a distinctive visual style, from the white knight chess piece that was the show’s visual logo, to star Richard Boone’s pointy mustache. There was something different, too, about Boone’s single-named gunslinger character, Paladin. He was learned, knew a number of languages, and had the refined taste of a spy in the era of hired gunmen. He also tried what he could to keep peace before he pulled out his Colt .45. Like so many westerns in the early days, it was a prolific incubator for actors and directors, in its six seasons and 225 episodes, among them George Kennedy, Peter Falk, Buddy Ebsen, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates and Jack Lord. Gene Roddenberry wrote more than a few episodes, and Sam Peckinpah was amid its many directors over the years. Unfortunately, “Have Gun – Will Travel” reflected the racism of the time in which it was set (and the time it was shot) with the only recurring characters being a pair of Chinese servants at Paladin’s home hotel — whose character names were “Hey Boy” and, yes, “Hey Girl.”

  • 9. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1958-1961)

    Then and now, central characters in TV westerns tend to be Civil War veterans. That was the case of Josh Randall, the bounty hunter with an understanding nature from this series. The show, which began as a spinoff of “Trackdown,” a nearly forgotten series starring Robert Culp as a Texas Ranger, is memorable chiefly for its introduction of Steve McQueen, who often said he learned his craft in the black-and-white action series. Certainly, the series made him a star, and he went on to movies, never to return to TV. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was odd for a couple of reasons. One was that it was only a half-hour long, owing more to the narrative length of radio serials than what we know of western dramas on TV now. The show also featured a slew of guest appearances, from future “Dennis the Menace” star Jay North to James Coburn, Michael Landon and DeForest Kelley. The series remained of interest to fans mainly because of the McQueen connection, so much so that it was colorized for a 1987 VHS release. There were two different theme songs in the show’s three seasons; neither was by Bon Jovi.

  • 8. “Rawhide” (1959-1965)

    Like “Have Gun – Will Travel,” “Rawhide” appeared toward the end of the western black-and-white heyday and is notable chiefly for introducing Clint Eastwood as a regular star. He and Eric Fleming played a pair of drovers on an endless cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. Like its contemporary “Wagon Train,” it set up all manner of adventures while out on the road. At the end of an episode, it was get along, little doggies. Sheb Wooley, known in other realms as the recording artist of “The Purple People Eater,” was the scout for several seasons. The long, long list of guest stars included Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Montgomery, Burgess Meredith, Martin Landau, Eddie Albert, Robert Culp and Ruta Lee. In an era when Eastwood continues to be a major player in front of and behind the camera, the theme music, by Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by Frankie Laine, also remains indelible (and one of the few songs punctuated by a bullwhip): “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, though the streams are swollen, keep them doggies rollin’, rawhide!”

  • 7. “The Wild Wild West” (1965-1969)

    If you can forget the misfiring 1999 remake with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, the original series, starring Robert Conrad as James T. West and Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon, was a generally amiable romp, predating much more extreme western mashups, like last year’s bizarre “Cowboys & Aliens,” by incorporating all manner of fanciful gadgets in the arsenal of the U.S. Secret Service agent. The show was buoyed by the cheer and good humor of the leads, but was undone, as many superhero movies are, by ill-thought super-villains, such as the one played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn, the evil Dr. Miguelito Loveless. Robert Duvall, Carroll O’Connor, Robert Loggia, Sammy Davis Jr. and Don Rickles were among the guest stars. Extra points for wrapping succinctly after four seasons and 104 episodes.

  • 6. “Firefly” (2002)

    Joss Whedon’s first series after “Buffy” and its spinoffs was this fanciful futuristic space show that he quite explicitly described as a western. That could be seen too in the adventures of the spaceship, led like so many cowboy series, by a pair of soldiers from the recent Civil War (in this case the Unification War,) in which planets banded together to resist the controlling Alliance. Though it lasted just 14 episodes, it garnered enough of a cult following to still be rerun on TV (currently on Discovery Science, of all places) and resulted in Whedon’s 2005 theatrical release “Serenity,” named after the spaceship of the original. It was the first time Nathan Fillion, currently of “Castle,” headed a TV cast; costars included Summer Glau (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” “Dollhouse”), Adam Baldwin (“Chuck”) and Morena Baccarin (“V,” “Homeland”). With role-playing games and comics spun out from the original series, the light of “Firefly” may not be extinguished yet.

  • 5. “McCloud” (1970-1977)

    If the definition of westerns can be expanded with sci-fi, it can certainly include this ’70s police drama. After all, it may be the closest cousin to the current “Justified,” with Dennis Weaver, who had appeared in so many early westerns as a guest star, as a U.S. marshal from Taos, N.M., who has been reassigned to New York City. There, his sheepskin coat and mustache contrasted with 1970s New York, where buckskin fringe and Stetson were more often identified with “Midnight Cowboy.” There was rarely as striking an image in TV as McCloud on horseback galloping into a busy, crime-streaked city street. It was his ethos and unflappable nature that put him on par with the pantheon of western heroes before him, despite the gritty streets. The cast included Teri Garr, J.D. Cannon, Diana Muldaur and Ken Lynch. After the show went off the air, Weaver returned to the character 12 years later, when he had become a U.S. senator. In 2002, on an episode of “The Simpsons,” Weaver gave voice to a cowboy named Buck McCoy who says he once played “McTrigger” on a TV show in which it “seems all I did was shoot hippies.”

  • 4. “The Big Valley” (1965-1969)

    The West wasn’t exactly free of women, though TV westerns would certainly make you think it was. The exception was this sprawling series in which Barbara Stanwyck seemed to have as much control as her domineering character did over the Barkley Ranch toward the end of the 19th century. Few women in any TV series were portrayed as powerfully, with the former movie queen barking orders and laying down the law as the strong-willed widow who still had a family to raise (Lee Majors and Linda Evans among the grown offspring). Much more than a marquee name who presided over action, she also was extremely physical in the role, with all manner of threats and traps each week. The cinematography was notable for a time when TV sets were still small. Audiences loved the show and it was said that it was pulled in 1969 only because network executives wanted more modern shows on the air. If Stanwyck’s feisty Victoria Barkley had been part of the negotiations, it never would have happened.

  • 3. “Lonesome Dove” (1989)

    Talk about single-handedly reviving a genre. The sprawling four-part miniseries, drawn from Larry McMurtry’s best selling novel, became a television event in a handsome adaptation that starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas Rangers in a small border town who decide to go up to Montana for one last cattle drive. The big cast included Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Frederic Forrest, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper and D.B. Sweeney. Ricky Schroder played a character named Newt (and really — how many characters are named Newt?). Every western miniseries to follow would be compared to “Lonesome Dove,” and the 2006 “Broken Trail,” with Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, matched it, opening the door with its success to all the original programming AMC now does so routinely, from “Breaking Bad” to “The Killing” and “The Walking Dead,” each of which also has roots in the western form (though “Mad Men” probably does not).

  • 2. “Deadwood” (2004-2006)

    David Milch upended all we knew about the TV western with his brash, brilliantly acted and convincingly profane portrait of the South Dakota boomtown, with historical figures and demonic bar owners, ruthless claim jumpers and that oldest of western tropes: the sheriff who comes in to clean it all up. In this case it’s Timothy Olyphant, who some would say currently does the same type of thing in “Justified.” For Milch it was easy to follow history and kill off the best known character, Wild Bill Hickok, relatively early on. There were plenty of characters to continue to follow, some of them so quirky and originally drawn, it created a portrait of the American West that had never been seen before. With its mud and blood and nonstop profanity, it was a portrait that would seem to make every western before it forever obsolete. Its dizzying cast included Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Powers Boothe, John Hawkes, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Anna Gunn, Dayton Callie, Brad Dourif and Garret Dillahunt – playing two different key roles. If the show hadn’t just petered out after three seasons and 36 episodes, with no attempt at resolution, it would have been No. 1.

  • 1. “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975)

    But there’s no denying not only the most popular TV western ever made, but also the longest-running, scripted live-action series of any type. “Gunsmoke” had its roots in radio, where it ran for nine years starting in 1951, but the TV version was its own formidable beast, running an astounding 635 episodes over two decades with largely the same cast.

    John Wayne might have been perfect for the role as Marshal Matt Dillon, but TV was new and he was busy. As it was, he introduced the series in 1955 and the rugged actor who would take the role, James Arness. Like Arness, Milburn Stone played his role, “Doc,” through the length of the series that depicted the West as a broad, breathtaking canvas for settling and heroism. Wildly popular as a half-hour show, it was expanded to an hour in 1961, only serving to further develop the stories of Dodge City, Kan., populated by Amanda Blake, Ken Curtis, the aforementioned Dennis Weaver and even Burt Reynolds. A remarkably assured drama, it was No. 1 for its first five years, ready to take some bold chances in narrative, as when Miss Kitty played a round of poker to save the life of the sheriff – a Bergmanesque episode that also happened to star Harrison Ford. When it left in 1973 to make way for such modern shows as “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoffs “Rhoda” and “Phyllis,” it was the last western standing on TV. Like “Deadwood,” “Gunsmoke” didn’t have a conclusion either. But at least it returned for a couple of TV movies, something David Milch talks about, but with his new horse-racing series “Luck” starting on HBO this month, probably will never complete.