The Western Character
Regardless of generic limitations on plot development, the strength of the adult Western was its characterizations of men and women in historical context. More significant than the predictability of a conclusion was the emotional conflict the genre now presented. Unlike the melodramatic stylizations of cowboy programs meant for juvenile audiences, adult Westerns were character dramas. More than simple storytelling, they sought to draw viewers into their characters and in the process probe inner qualities and personal and moral quandaries. Here the accent was upon personality under stress and the human condition examined in the mythic past.
For NBC producer Ted Rogers, the hallmark of the adult Western was this embellishment of dramatic characters and their interrelationships. In 1958 he praised the newer form for the manner in which its creators took time to define individuals and show them in social action. Rogers contended that in adult Westerns "the viewer cares sufficiently what happens to the dramatis personae.
In creating central characters whose appeal lay as much in their sympathetic qualities as their quixotic dedication, adult TV Westerns avoided the simplified imagery of the B movie tradition. Speaking of his role in bringing Gunsmoke from radio to television, CBS vice-president Hubbell Robinson noted in 1959:
We worked on the character of Matt Dillon. We made him a man with doubts, confused about the job he had to do. He wondered whether he really had to do that job. We did the same for Chester and Doc. They're not just stooges for Matt.
The care he showed in developing Matt Dillon was not limited to one series. Hubbell Robinson carried this same philosophy into Have Gun—Will Travel. Here, according to the CBS executive, the goal was to create in its central character, Paladin, a similarly complex person.
Paladin is a gun for hire, but at the same time he is a man of culture, a man with a taste for elegance. On the moral side he runs into the same confusions as [Matt] Dillon. He's not always sure of himself. He's not all black and white.
Such humanization was also in the mind of Roy Huggins when he created the Maverick series for Warner Brothers and ABC. Huggins intentionally developed leading men who broke all the rules of the traditional Western hero. The brothers Bret and Bart Maverick and their kin were recognizable types. When enduring insults from a bully of obvious superior strength, the Mavericks worried less about male pride and more about pain; if faced with a robber's six-gun after a profitable game of poker, the Mavericks readily surrendered their winnings. The brothers followed the advice of their "Pappy" that "work is all right for killin' time, but it’s a shaky way to make a livin'."
With a relaxed fatalism absent from most series leads, the Mavericks were iconoclastic. Speaking in 1958, Huggins outlined the Maverick persona as “he's a little bit of a coward, he's not solemn, he's greedy and not above cheating a little, he's indifferent to the problems of others.” To Huggins, a Maverick was “something of a 'gentle grafter,' but we couldn't use the title because O. Henry used it first.”
In such a manner principals in the adult Western may have remained heroic to viewers, but their achievements were tempered, even enhanced, by the human vulnerability they possessed. More than granite symbols of right against wrong, they operated as thinking, feeling grownups with sensibilities that were integral to their social functions.
On The Rifleman the personality of Lucas McCain even outweighed his considerable expertise in firearms. Although his rifle was a violent, if discriminate, tool of pioneer life, the quality that made the series last six seasons was his strong sense of masculine social responsibility. Toward his young son Mark this was manifest in the protective, fatherly love that the widower McCain showed toward the boy. As it concerned his frontier town and fellow citizens, McCain was the ideal good neighbor and reliable friend, always ready to help, never afraid to confront threats to social order.
In Josh Randall of Wanted—Dead or Alive, audiences accepted for three years a traditionally despised Western type: the bounty hunter; but Randall challenged the stereotype of the bounty hunter as grizzled, mean, and antisocial. He was likeable, caring, and even self-sacrificing at times. True to the American business ethic, Randall was an ambitious young professional whose enterprise was capturing wanted criminals. Tough and defensive he could be, but Randall was a self-starter, a hard worker seeking to get ahead; and ultimately he worked in the name of law and order.
If McCain was protective and Randall was ambitious, Vint Bonner of The Restless Gun was fashioned along more familiar lines. Bonner was created as a "sympathetic working cowhand, an itinerate who spends six months in one town, a year in another, and who is pretty well known as a dependable, nice guy." John Payne, who played Bonner for two years on NBC, suggested that his character was an ingratiating one. "People sort of naturally gravitate towards Bonner when they've got problems," he told TV Guide in 1958, "and Bonner tries to solve them as best he can. If there is such a thing as a next-door neighbor in a Western, that's Vint Bonner."
Some of the more challenging characterizations occurred in those few programs that focused upon outlaws as central characters. The noted film director Don Siegel was closely involved in a series based on the life of Jesse James. The Legend of Jesse James lasted only the 1965-66 season, failing in great part because its writers were unable to make the notorious robber and killer into a believably sensitive character whose basic concerns were for the common man. Reviewing the effort, Cleveland Amory in TV Guide chided its producers for trying "to make, out of a robbing hood, Robin Hood." He continued, "The trouble is that the producers, having decided to give us an outlaw for a hero, then proceeded in script after script to make him, if not an in-law, at least not all bad."
vMore successful at placing a bad man at the center of a series was The Tall Man. On NBC from 1960 to 1962, this undertaking treated fictionally the relationship between Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Again it was necessary to adjust the historical image of a notorious murderer, William H. Bonney, to make him a personality with whom, it was hoped, viewers would identify. Clu Gulager, who portrayed Billy the Kid, claimed the program depicted the interaction between a fatherly Garrett, "a man of vision, but a human being ... with all the foibles of a human being," and the Kid whom "some day he will be forced to kill." In sketching Billy the Kid, Gulager touched upon the sympathetic nature that all adult Westerns sought to instill in their central characters:
Pat Garrett loved Billy. . . . The Mexican people loved him. He was lovable—except that, at certain times, he became mean and vicious. He killed twenty-one men. Some of these slayings were justified, some were not. We're not whitewashing Billy. But at the same time, we are not showing him as nothing but a vicious killer. He had a gentle side.
In terms of sustained interest in Western characterizations, the most successful production was Gunsmoke. Each weekly episode focused on a complex situation in which series regulars interacted with strangers and the townspeople of Dodge City. Kitty Russell, the tough owner of the Long Branch saloon, epitomized the tension between social respectability and the demands of a single woman making a living on the frontier. Doc Adams possessed the classic gruff exterior masking a vulnerable, self-sacrificing professionalism. For dramatic relief, as well as occasional law enforcement purposes, Chester Goode and later Festus Hagen were deputy marshals better skilled in brewing a pot of coffee or unconsciously adding a humorous tinge to Dodge City life.
The center of the moral universe in Gunsmoke was Matt Dillon. Slow to anger and aware of what drove men to criminality in the 1870s, the good marshal presided cautiously over his jurisdiction. In an installment of the CBS documentary series, The 20th Century ("The Western Hero," broadcast March 19, 1963), narrator Walter Cronkite aptly described Dillon as "more of a large, armed scoutmaster in a world of maladjusted human beings."
With regulars as well as weekly heavies, Dillon was forthright but not without well-planned shortcomings. He did not know all the answers; he sometimes misjudged people; he could get angry; he sometimes needed other people to complete his tasks. In fact, the creators of Gunsmoke were careful to keep the marshal an identifiable character capable of mistakes. Producer-director Norman Macdonnell in 1958 explained that "as soon as your lead becomes a hero, you're in trouble." Macdonnell admitted that when Matt Dillon starts to become unrealistically invincible it is time to "fix him," to write a script where "poor old Matt gets outdrawn and outgunned and pulls every dumb trick in the book. It makes him, and us, human."" That prescription for commonality lasted into the last years of the series. According to John Mantley, producer of Gunsmoke in the early 1970s, "Matt is fallible. And the ordinary guy can say, ‘He's just like me.’"
To label a Western as "adult" did not imply that its language or imagery broke network restrictions regarding "good taste." Neither did it suggest that such a program approximated the frankness found in Western motion pictures at the time. The adult Western drew from the theatrical tradition of television where throughout the 1950s live dramas were aired each evening.
Of course, some adult Westerns were more complex than others. Gunsmoke, for example, probed character with subtlety and sensitivity, while The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was often exaggerated and obvious in its representation of frontier predicaments. Furthermore, there were variations within individual series. For example, in Johnny Ringo, which lasted for 38 episodes on CBS in 1959-60, there was a wide range of imagery. On the sophisticated side, individual episodes involved Sheriff Ringo in social issues such as the coddling of criminals ("The Hunters" on October 29, 1959), racial and ethnic prejudice ("Shoot the Moon," aired June 2, 1960), and political assassination ("The Assassins," aired February 18, 1960). One story involved a lonely woman whose flirtations resulted in several violent deaths ("Four Came Quietly," aired January 28, 1960). Another episode, composed by the noted writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, revolved about death and a coach that had disappeared years earlier ("Ghost Coach," aired November 12, 1959).
However, the series had its simpler moments. In "Killer, Choose a Card" on June 9, 1960, Ringo used a silly trick to save an old woman sentenced to hang for committing a murder. He accomplished this by having the woman fake her own suicide, then appear dressed as a ghost before four men he suspected. Shaken by this "apparition" in a white dress and covered with white facial powder, the true murderer cried out a confession.
Even more out of character was Ringo's performance in "Kid with a Gun" where he became the first (and possibly only) "singing" adult TV Western hero. As televised on Christmas eve in 1959, Ringo helped a young girl recite her "Now I lay me down to sleep" bedtime prayers, then followed with a lullaby—lushly embellished with an orchestral backing—while she lay tucked in bed. Before playing Ringo actor Don Durant, who composed the song, had been a singer with the Ray Anthony band. His performance in this episode was more worthy of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry than the serious-minded Sheriff Ringo.
To remain viable, television producers had to understand the limitations imposed upon a mass entertainment product by the mass audience. Most stations were reluctant to broadcast material they felt might offend local sensibilities. Most sponsors, too, did not want their products associated with dramatic innovations that might be disconcerting or frustrating to audiences.
For their part, viewers seemed to prefer predictability in the entertainment entering their homes via television. As is usually the case with American popular culture, the mass audience preferred the familiarity of the conventional. Viewers usually made hit shows out of series that offered formula and fashion instead of originality.
Statistics indicated, moreover, that the popularity of many adult Westerns rested with children. In the case of the long-running Bonanza, for example, Nielsen ratings in 1961 showed that 35 percent of its audience was comprised of viewers 17 years old and younger. Thus, at a time when citizen groups and government agencies were railing against violence and sexual imagery on TV, executives from the network level downward were sensitive to public criticism.
Tempted as they might be, production companies were not able to sustain Western characters whose frankness went beyond the limits of taste to which television adhered. Illustrative of this reality was the case of The Californians. As reported in TV Guide, the series underwent major alterations in characterization and scope as a result of viewer and sponsor upset. When it premiered in the fall of 1957, The Californians concerned life in San Francisco's unruly Barbary Coast section. It attempted to depict rather starkly the brutality, lawlessness, and racial tension prevalent in gold rush days. It also focused flatteringly on a young newspaperman from the East and on a band of vigilantes he joined to establish law and order. As the central character, the vigilante Easterner was soon replaced by a marshal—but he was compromised by being the owner of a gambling establishment filled with drinking and gambling patrons as well as women apparently of easy virtue.
Such characterization might have succeeded in feature films, but as a TV project it met with quick disapproval. Sponsor, advertising agency, network, and series producer—all compelled the writers to tone down their representations. Dance hall girls were pushed further into the background. The vigilante element was discontinued. Shot glasses and gaming tables were deemphasized, and violence and rough language were tempered.
According to TV Guide, "the sponsor was dissatisfied with the Old West as it was, and wanted it altered along socially acceptable lines." Within a few months the central character's "traits began to evaporate and he became virtually indistinguishable from all other TV cowboys." However, with such alterations the program was able to remain on NBC for two years.
While the adult Western had boundaries it had to respect, it was still a creditable drama. Relative to the juvenile series, moreover, it was a sizable step forward in programming maturity. Indeed, the adult Western stood out in three important directions:
- (1) its emphasis upon psychological considerations, often as a result of the fuller characterization that it displayed;
(2) the quantity and quality of violence that it demonstrated; and
(3) the generally more complex handling of the genre and its traditional themes.