The Components Of The Adult Western
Adult Westerns were recognizable immediately by their sponsors. Where Kellogg's Sugar Pops and General Mills' Cheerios were peddled on Wild Bill Hickok and The Lone Ranger, respectively, the newer cowboy dramas were now underwritten by expensive, obviously adult products. During the 1959-60 TV season, for example, Greyhound bus lines sponsored Cimarron City and Sugarfoot. For its Willys Jeep vehicles, Kaiser sponsored Maverick, while Buicks were sold on Tales of Wells Fargo, Fords on Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, Ford and Edsel automobiles on Wagon Train, Gulf gasoline on The Californians, Aqua Velva aftershave lotion on The Texan, Burgermeister beer on Trackdown, and Dristan decongestant on Bronco. For its several brands of cigarettes (Chesterfield, L & M, Duke, Oasis), the Liggett & Myers tobacco company bought commercial time on Black Saddle, Laramie, The Rebel, Bonanza, Hotel de Paree, and Gunsmoke. For its soap products—from laundry detergents to toothpastes to shampoos—Procter & Gamble advertised on 15 different adult Westerns.
Commercial appeal was fundamental to the adult Western. Speaking to Kraft Foods sales personnel in 1958, suave and handsome Gene Barry explained how influential his new Bat Masterson series would be in persuading housewives to purchase a wide array of Kraft products since the program aired Wednesday nights, “just before the women do their big shopping on Thursdays and Fridays.” In late 1959 Ward Bond, dressed as his Wagon Train character, wagonmaster Major Seth Adams, spoke to Ford dealers and linked the new 1960 Ford Falcon station wagon to the functionality of the wooden wagons that transported pioneers across the American plains and mountains in an earlier era. And, of course, Western actors appeared in character to trumpet their sponsors’ products in print advertisements well as in television commercials.
That the TV Western was a persuasive adult sales rhetoric was best summarized in the flourishing of the “Marlboro Man." As a rugged, manly tobacco user living in Marlboro Country—a successful advertising concept from the Leo Burnett agency in 1954—the Marlboro Man quickly evolved from an average guy puttering with his sports car, to a sea captain with a tattoo on his hand, to a contemporary cowboy exploitive of the burgeoning Western mystique on television. Marlboro commercials appeared on series like Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Tombstone Territory—as well as national news, sports, and other network and local shows. They were used to refashion for masculine esthetics a brand traditionally considered a "fancy smoke for dudes and women." Moreover, long after cigarette advertising was legally banned from broadcasting and the Western was relegated to syndicated reruns, that cowboy motif continued to persuade smokers to keep Marlboro the top-selling brand of cigarettes in the United States.
What sponsors recognized in the adult Western was the ability of the genre to attract sizable audiences of potential customers. But what brought grown-ups regularly to these series was more complex. First, these alluring champions were unprecedented for television. As characters they were not only tough, but they were mature and recognizably human in their activities. It became commonplace to encounter series stars in a saloon drinking hard liquor, chatting with bargirls, or playing poker with local gamblers. These central characters broke old stereotypes. Some heroes developed romantic interests. Some sold their talents as gunfighters. Still others unashamedly lived on rewards collected for capturing outlaws dead or alive. Adult Westerns offered strong men who sweated in the summer heat and complained about the winter freeze. Occasionally, they exploded in anger. When they made mistakes, they were compelled to suffer consequences.
In a medium that thrives on the glamorous, the adult Western offered scores of attractive young men in starring roles. Little-known but handsome actors such as James Garner, Jack Kelly, James Arness, Hugh O'Brian, Michael Ansara, Robert Culp, Steve McQueen, and Clint Walker quickly became national celebrities. Leading men well-known from motion pictures—Rory Calhoun, John Payne, Dick Powell, Ward Bond—also came to the TV Western and found renewed popularity.
The television Western was also an art form that lured and trained talented personnel behind the scenes. Many directors prominent in motion pictures now plied their trade in the video Western. Similarly, many young directors gained important experience in the TV genre before going on to achievement in feature films. Among those seasoned directors who contributed were Lewis Milestone (Have Gun Will Travel), R. G. Springsteen (Trackdown, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Laredo, Rawhide, Wagon Train), Charles Marquis Warren (Gunsmoke, Cimarron Strip), Sam Fuller (The Iron Horse, The Virginian), Budd Boetticher (Maverick), and Tay Garnett (Death Valley Days, The Legend of Jesse James, Frontier Circus, Gunsmoke, The Tall Man, Rawhide, Laramie, The Deputy, The Loner).
Those emerging from TV Westerns to success in motion pictures included Robert Altman (Lawman, Bronco, Sugarfoot, Maverick, Bonanza), Andrew McLaglen (Have Gun Will Travel, Gunslinger, Gunsmoke, The Virginian), Boris Sagal (Cimarron Strip, Dundee and the Culhane, A Man Called Shenandoah), Buzz Kulik (Have Gun Will Travel), Sam Peckinpah (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, The Westerner), and Sydney Pollack (Frontier Circus)
After a decade dominated by situation comedies, live dramas, quiz shows, and musical-variety programs, television programmers turned in the late 1950s to filmed adventure series. Such productions allowed for a broader range of dramatic action as cameras escaped the confines of the live stage. Further, as was evident from the success of many child-oriented TV series—especially Westerns—filmed programs could be rerun and later syndicated, thereby making profits for years or decades after their premier runs.
Importantly, too, this move to film was possible because by the mid-1950s the major motion picture studios had abandoned their initial hostility to television, deciding now that there was a lucrative future in TV. The new series came from film companies long famous for quality Westerns. Among those studios and their TV series were Warner Brothers (Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, Lawman, Cheyenne, Temple Houston, Sugarfoot), 20th Century-Fox (Broken Arrow, The Legend of Jesse James, Lancer, Man Without a Gun, The Loner, Daniel Boone, Custer), United Artists (Bat Masterson, Stoney Burke, MacKenzie's Raiders), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Northwest Passage, A Man Called Shenandoah, The Rounders, Hondo, How the West Was Won), Columbia (Empire, Redigo, Jefferson Drum, The Man from Blackhawk, Two Faces West, The Outcasts, The Iron Horse), Paramount (Bonanza), and Universal/MCA (Cimarron City, The Virginian, Destry, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Road West, Laredo, Wagon Train, Laramie, Alias Smith and Jones). Significantly, in the case of Four Star Entertainment (Trackdown, Law of the Plainsman, The Rifleman, Black Saddle, Johnny, Ringo, The Westerner, The Big Valley, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater), the production of TV Westerns actually developed a small company not in the business of feature films—although its founders were screen stars Dick Powell, Gig Young, David Niven, and Charles Boyer—into a major force in television programming.
In this context the adult-oriented Western was a propitious genre in which to blend dramatic conflict, human insight, outdoor beauty, and subtle moralizing. But action did not disappear in the adult format. There continued to be brawls, shootouts, and quick-draw challenges to frontier manhood. The emphasis now, however, was upon fuller characterization and maturity of story line.
There were those, however, who felt such developments detrimental to the genre. From totally different perspectives actor Johnny Mack Brown and critic John Lardner lamented the emergence of the new Westerns. According to Brown, the dashing star of many B cowboy features and serials in the 1930s and 1940s, the films we made had a good plot and a lot of action. We had people tumbling over cliffs and swimming rivers. TV does the whole thing in a room, and they film it in two days. They just let their characters talk. We really showed them, riding to the pass ... In TV all you've got is talk. You got New York actors in Western hats who don't know what a cow is standing around talking.... Where's the flying, riding, falling—the thrills of the Old West?
For John Lardner the adult Western signified the ruination of a classic genre. As early as 1958 in The New Yorker magazine he decried "the hybrid Western" where "Freudian overtones and complexes as thick as mesquite" had supplanted the appealing simplicity of the cowboy story. A year later he was certain that the "writers of adult Westerns have become too adult for their own good, and their world, like the Roman Empire, is crumbling around them." Drawing another parallel from history Lardner warned that "the signs of Byzantine decay are unmistakable."'
Despite such misgivings, the adult Western did not signify the erosion of heroism or the denigration of heroic style. In fact, in the opinion of Clint Walker, the star of Cheyenne, the ultimate meaning of the new format was that it supplied champions for mature viewers. Writing in a fan magazine in 1955, Walker explained at length this function of the new video dramatizations.
We are a nation of hero-worshippers and the cowboy can be anybody's hero. Now being a nation of hero-worshippers isn't bad, it's good. This is a big country and a hundred years ago when our people were pushing across the plains and over the Great Divide, every citizen had to have some of the good stuff cowboys are made of—if he wanted to survive. ... [T]ake the real heroes we remember—men like Jim Bowie and Sam Houston and John Fremont and Wyatt Earp—they all had something of the cowboy in them. It's the kind of heroism that makes it possible for a man to live alone and at peace with himself, or to do what seems right whether it comes easy or comes hard, to stand up for what he believes in, even if it's going to be the last time he stands up. Well, from the time we Americans are little shavers sitting on grandfather's knee until the time when we're grandfathers ourselves, there's always the special need to have somebody kind of important to look up to. The problem is finding a hero everybody can agree on. Not always in the field of politics or science or education can such a man be found. Yet there seems to be one good place where such men are still bred ... the storied West. And part and parcel of the invincibility of the West is the figure of the cowboy who inhabits it ... as long as he and the West retain their heroic proportions, he and the Western drama won't go out of styles Although they were heroes, central characters of adult Westerns did not operate in contexts as simple as those of their child-oriented predecessors. Whatever their running time, be it 30, 60, or 90 minutes, they presented social, psychological, and moralistic complexities not found in the juvenile series. The black-and-white world yielded now to a more realistic universe tinged with ambiguous grays. As critic Cleveland Amory phrased it, "Nowadays on TV Westerns there are not only good guys and bad guys, but also in-between guys.
That this was a fresh interpretation of cowboy heroics was evident in the way many actors understood their roles. Hugh O'Brian of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp explained Earp as a "lusty character, too lusty for TV. He had to have faults to be human. And I try to play him that way—relaxed until he loses his temper, then all steel springs; capable of occasional errors in judgment, but humble about them."'
Steve McQueen defined his role as Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive, noting "There's a certain honesty and realism in this series.... The hero isn't always a nice guy—you didn't stay alive in the Old West being nice."' And John Russell of Lawman described his character, marshal Dan Troop, as "philosophically ... Man doing his job, at the expense of everything else. He doesn't make himself winning or witty, or do anything else to make people like him. Unbending isn't his duty."
Gene Barry of Bat Masterson was candid, too, in sketching the real Masterson as a Western lawman and a foppish dandy. "Bat didn't take himself too seriously. There was a little of the gimlet-eyed killer about him," noted Barry. "He proposed to relax between jobs.... Bat was a familiar figure in all the bars and gambling joints—and numerous romances indicate he was not one to shun the ladies." Although the video Masterson never approached the fullness of the historic figure, the series producers promised that Bat Masterson "will be as authentic as we can make it.... From the start Bat was an easygoing enforcer of law and order, refusing to take a man in unless he was definitely out of hand and a menace to himself and others."
The adult Western began with the premier in September 1955 of four network series: Gunsmoke on CBS, Frontier on NBC, and Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on ABC. Exemplifying the uncertainty with which these dramas were introduced, during its first season Cheyenne appeared only as part of a trilogy—the others being a program about international intrigue, Casablanca, and a medical series, King's Row—which rotated under the general title, Warner Brothers Presents.
Of these series premiering in 1955 only Frontier failed to achieve lasting popular acceptance. Ironically, as engaging programming, it was the most distinguished program of the four. Its executive producer was Worthington Miner, the TV pioneer who created and/or produced such shows as The Goldbergs, Toast of the Town, and Studio One. Frontier was created and written by Mort Fine and David Friedkin, a writing team later responsible for the espionage series, I Spy, but already celebrated in radio for two gritty detective programs, Broadway Is My Beat and The Lineup, and for Bold Venture, an action-adventure series that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Frontier also featured the work of producer Matthew Rapf and emerging young directors like Sidney Lumet and Don Siegel.
However, Frontier was telecast on Sunday evenings opposite The Jack Benny Program (ranked fifth that season) and Ann Sothern's situation comedy, Private Secretary (ranked eleventh). Moreover, in a genre known for its appeal to rugged masculine values, Miner intended his series for a female audience. He explained in TV Guide that "Fifty percent of Frontier's scripts are about women .... Frontier is about women with guts, not men with guns."'' Privately, however, Miner anticipated that "since there are horses and cowhands—though without any shooting—it should reach a family audience."
Although Walt Disney and his Davy Crockett must be given partial credit for preparing the way for the adult TV Western, the roots of the phenomenon lie elsewhere in American popular culture. Mature cowboy stories could be found in the literary work of writers like Max Brand and Clarence E. Mulford in the 1920s. William S. Hart made adult-oriented Western films in the teens and 1920s. After a hiatus during the heyday of the B Western, Stagecoach (1939) and The Westerner (1940) revived sophisticated cowboy drama—a trend accelerated in the postwar years by motion pictures such as Duel in the Sun (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and Giant (1955).
Television, itself, was not totally inhospitable to adult Westerns before the fall of 1955. Such programs were more uncommon on live TV than on film, perhaps because the Wild West was difficult to capture on a single stage; but it was possible to produce live Westerns. An important example was "The Death of Billy the Kid," a presentation of The Philco Television Playhouse on July 24, 1955, starring Paul Newman and directed by Robert Mulligan. Three years later Newman, working now with director Arthur Penn, recreated this drama as the feature film The Left-Handed Gun.
Adult-oriented Westerns did appear early in filmed dramatic series. During its third season on CBS, 1953-54, The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars regularly aired stories set in the Old West. Even earlier the syndicated anthology program Death Valley Days—a radio staple for almost two decades before coming to television in 1952—had adult possibilities although it tended toward quaint vignettes of pioneer days rather than mature characterizations or realistic predicaments.
The first adult Western series, predating Gunsmoke and even Walt Disney's programs, was the off-network series Stories of the Century. Syndicated in 1954, it concerned two investigators for the Southwestern Railroad—portrayed by Jim Davis and Mary Castle and later Kristine Miller—and their fictionalized encounters with infamous personalities from Western lore. Within a semi-documentary format enhanced with stock film footage from Republic Pictures, Stories of the Century placed its central characters in the lives of desperadoes like Frank and Jesse James, Belle Starr, the "Black Jack" Ketchum gang, William Clarke Quantrill, Doc Holliday, and the Younger brothers.
The emphasis here was not a glorification of desperadoes, but a depiction of Western criminality within a biographical framework. The episode concerning Chief Crazy Horse, for example, was frank in demonstrating the culpability of the U.S. Army in the capture and death of the Sioux chieftain. It painted an ennobling image of Crazy Horse as the head of a nation—as a family man with a wife and infant son—and as a dignified leader who retained such personal pride that he chose to be shot escaping rather than face the white man's military prison.
The relative sophistication of Stories of the Century was not overlooked by the television industry. The series received an Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as the best Western or adventure series of 1954. The fact that it won the award by defeating three juvenile series—The Roy Rogers Show, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and Annie Oakley, as well as the less sophisticated Death Valley Days—suggests that within the TV industry there was an appreciation of the importance of Western dramatic entertainment for adult tastes.
As influential as these precursors may have been in spawning network adult Westerns, there were indications that commercial broadcasting had been moving toward this genre several years before the fall of 1955. This was especially noticeable in network radio in the early 1950s. Here in TV's sister industry CBS and NBC expended considerable effort in producing frontier dramatics intended for an older audience.
This was ironic, for only radio of all the commercial mass media consistently stultified the development of the Western. On network radio in the 1930s and 1940s the genre was treated as children's entertainment. Indeed, the cowboy champions who populated the audio Golden Age—Red Ryder, Straight Arrow, Tom Mix, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the like—were B Western characterizations meant to attract younger listeners.
This tradition was broken when Gunsmoke came to CBS radio in April 1952. With William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon, it remained a weekly production until June 1961. Flourishing in a decade when radio drama became practically nonexistent, it totaled 419 different scripts, many of which were later adapted for TV. Significantly, the radio division of CBS continued into the late 1950s to experiment with adult Westerns, offering Raymond Burr as the star of Fort Laramie (1956), Sam Buffington in Luke Slaughter of Tombstone (1958), and John Dehner as the hero of both Frontier Gentleman (1958) and a radio version of Have Gun—Will Travel (1958-60).
The popularity of Gunsmoke on CBS appears to have spurred rival NBC radio to develop mature Westerns of its own. In the 1953-54 season James Stewart appeared as Bret Poncett, the central character of The Six-Shooter. The following season the network introduced a frontier physician as a pioneer hero in Dr. Six-Gun. These characters faced problems involving such issues as gun control, religious bigotry, and mob violence. Characters were more deeply sketched and the resolution of conflict was more ambiguous as, clearly, these programs sought to appeal to men and women. Coming as they did so late in the history of network radio, such shows were not ratings successes. Nonetheless, this experimentation familiarized NBC and CBS with the potential of the format several years before it flourished on television.
On TV the adult Western had great appeal. During its first decade it dominated popular preferences. At its height more than 60 million viewers nightly were entertained by its stories. According to one trade journal, there was so much confidence in the genre, one network reportedly held to the motto, "You can be sure if it's a Western."
The mass acceptance of the Western came rapidly. During 1955 the average Nielsen rating for seven Westerns aired in prime time was 22.7, with a 37 audience share. This made the genre the fifth most popular format on television. As Table 4 illustrates, a year later the prime-time Western averaged a 26.0 rating with a 41 share, making it the leading program type in both categories.
|Table 4: Popularity of Prime-Time Genres, 1955-56|
|1955 Ratings||1955 Share|
|1. 60-min. variety||30.7||1. 60-min variety||40|
|2. Situation comedy||25.2||1. Adventure||40|
|3. 60-min. music||23.7||3. Situation comedy||39|
|3. Adventure||23.7||4. WESTERN||37|
|5. WESTERN||22.7||5. 60-min. music||35|
|6. Quiz/aud. part.||22.1||5. Suspense drama||35|
|7. General drama/30||21.1||5. General drama/30||35|
|8. Suspense drama||20.9||5. Quiz/aud. part.||35|
|9. General drama/60||20.8||9. General drama/60||33|
|10. 30-min. variety||19.6||10. 30-min. variety||30|
|11. 30-min. music||14.5||11. 30-min. music||23|
|12. Information||13.9||12. Information||25|
|1956 Ratings||1956 Share|
|1. WESTERN||30.7||1. WESTERN||41|
|2. Situation comedy||29.5||2. Situation comedy||38|
|3. Suspense drama||24.8||2. Suspense drama||38|
|4. Adventure||21.5||4. Quiz/aud. part.||36|
|5. General drama/30||22.7||5. General drama/30||35|
|5. 60-min. music||22.7||5. 60-min. variety||35|
|7. 30-min. variety||22.4||7. 30-min. variety||34|
|8. Quiz/aud. part.||21.7||8. 60-min. music||33|
|9. Adventure||21.5||8. Adventure||33|
|10. General drama/60||22.2||8. General drama/60||33|
|11. Information||14.3||11. Information||25|
|12. 30-min. music||12.8||12. 30-min. music||22|
The remarkable acceptance of the Western was no momentary fad. Variety reported that by October 1957 the average rating for 15 evening Westerns was 25.4—a clear 23 percent higher rating for cowboy dramas than for the other primetime shows, which together averaged 20.7.
What began as four series in late 1955 became 28 by the fall of 1959. That year, too, the networks aired as many as 17.5 hours of adult Westerns weekly. This figure represented almost one-quarter of all evening programming. And these were well-received series. One observer reported that in terms of film footage, TV Westerns by 1959 represented the equivalent of 400 feature films per year—more product than was produced during the so-called Golden Age of the B Western.
That Westerns were plentiful is obvious from a perusal of TV programming by the late 1950s. If October 3-9, 1959, was a typical week on American television, viewers in Minneapolis-St. Paul-served by six commercial stations with no overnight programming-had 81 Western programs available for viewing. Including adult and juvenile series, syndicated shows, and feature films, the daily presentations are enumerated in Table 5.
|Table 5: Westerns on TV, Week of October 3-9, 1959|
|Saturday||4 movies||Tuesday||1 movie|
|21 series||10 series|
|Sunday||2 movies||Wednesday||1 movie|
|12 series||5 series|
|Monday||1 movie||Thursday||1 movie|
|7 series||3 series|
If television was flooded with Westerns, it was because the genre was so well-received. As Table 6 indicates, adult Westerns in the period 1956-65 were rated regularly among the top ten programs in broadcasting
|Table 6: Incidence of Westerns among Top-Rated Programs.|
|Ending||in Top Ten||Rankings|
|1958||5||Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6, 8|
|1959||7||Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10|
|1960||4||Nos. 1, 2, 3, 9|
|1961||4||Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6|
|1962||3||Nos. 1, 2, 3|
|1963||2||Nos. 4, 10|
In their popular years, several juvenile Westerns appeared in prime time. In the fall of 1955, for example, seven such youth-oriented series were telecast in the early evening. Within four years, however, they were totally eclipsed by mature cowboy adventures. Never again would such youth programming appear during these advantageous hours. A perusal of fall network schedules, as tabulated in Table 7, confirms that the adult variety effectively killed production of those Westerns more closely associated with B film traditions.
|Table 7: Network Westerns, Fall 1950-Fall 1970|
|Year||Adult Series||Juvenile Series|
|(Total Hours)||(Total Hours)|
In terms of longevity, moreover, Table 8 indicates that the public accepted adult Westerns longer and more fully than their juvenile predecessors. Of the ten longest-running Western series in television history, only The Lone Ranger was intended for young viewers.
|Table 8: Ten Longest-Running Westerns in TV History|
|Title||Length of First Run||Episodes||Network Hours|
|Gunsmoke||Sept. 1955-Sept 1975||640||532|
|Bonanza||Sept. 1959-Jan. 1973||430||431|
|Wagon Train||Sept. 1957-Sept. 1965||284||300|
|Men from Shiloh||Sept. 1962-Sept. 1971||249||373.5|
|Have Gun—Will Travel||Sept. 1957-Sept. 1963||226||113|
|The Life and Legend|
|Of Wyatt Earp||Sept. 1955-Sept. 1961||225||112.5|
|The Lone Ranger||Sept. 1949-Sept. 1957||221||110.5|
|Rawhide||Jan. 1959-Jan. 1966||217||217|
|Tales of Wells Fargo||Mar. 1957-Sept. 1962||198||115|
|The Rifleman||Sept. 1958-July 1963||168||84|
In assessing the extent to which adult Westerns dominated TV viewing, it must be remembered that the figures cited cover only the most popular network series. At their height, however, even local non-network stations could choose between dozens of Western series. After several years of first runs, the more salable series were offered for off-network syndication, often under new titles. Thus, reruns of Gunsmoke were syndicated as marshal Dillon; Tales of Wells Fargo was marketed as Wells Fargo; and episodes of Wagon Train were now called Major Adams—Trailmaster.
As well as reruns, stations were also able to lease Westerns that had not appeared on network TV. These offerings, syndicated directly to local markets, included The Sheriff of Cochise, later called U.S. Marshall (156 episodes), Shotgun Slade (78 episodes), Two Faces West (39 episodes), Boots and Saddles—The Story of the Fifth Cavalry (39 episodes), Pony Express (39 episodes), MacKenzie's Raiders (39 episodes), Union Pacific (39 episodes), and Stories of the Century (37 episodes). Furthermore, the syndicated Death Valley Days which between 1952 and 1975 totaled 558 half-hour shows—also was packaged for reruns under such titles as Call of the West, Trails West, The Pioneers, Western Star Theater, and Frontier Adventures.
As might be imagined, with so much cowboy theatricality on weekly TV, writers became hard-pressed to develop innovative and attractive central characters. The result was a multitude of heroic guises. There was, of course, the hero as peace officer, be he sheriff (The Tall Man), marshal (Cimarron Strip), deputy (The Deputy), city policeman (Whispering Smith), Texas Ranger (Trackdown), Indian agent (Broken Arrow), or military officer (Custer). One series (The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters) borrowed somewhat from the juvenile format, offering the West as viewed through the eyes of a 12 year old on a wagon train moving toward California.
Writers also devised champions who played the role of mercenary (Have Gun—Will Travel), bounty hunter (Wanted: Dead or Alive), rakish gamblers (Maverick), rootless gunfighter (Shane), insurance investigator (The Man from Blackhawk), stagecoach superintendent (The Overland Trail), newspaperman (Jefferson Drum), rancher (The Virginian), cavalry scout (Hondo), railroad builder (Union Pacific), railroad owner (The Iron Horse), circus owner (Frontier Circus), rodeo performer (Stoney Burke), hotel detective (Hotel de Paree), civilian undercover agent for the army (Gunslinger), mayor (Cimarron City), tenderfoot law-student (Sugarfoot), lawyer (Temple Houston), and lawyers (Dundee and the Culhane).
Further, there was a former slave turned bounty hunter (The Outcasts), and a Harvard-educated Indian, now a U.S. marshal (Law of the Plainsman). Perhaps the most incredible central character, however, was a one-armed fast-gun-for-hire (Tate).
These adult Westerns ranged chronologically from the late eighteenth century (Daniel Boone) to the contemporary era (Empire). Most were rooted in towns, but some were set on sprawling ranches (The High Chaparral) while others moved across the Great Plains (Wagon Train), up the great cattle trails (Rawhide), or along stagecoach routes (Stagecoach West). Johnny Yuma was a former Confederate soldier in The Rebel, and William Colton was a former Union cavalry officer in The Loner—but both roamed the West settling other people's problems. Some meandered alone (Wrangler) while others rode with pals (The Rough Riders).
Several series focused on men with personal searches to undertake. One was looking for his criminal son (The Guns of Will Sonnett); another had amnesia and sought his true identity (A Man Called Shenandoah). The rugged hero of >Branded was mustered unjustly out of the U.S. Army, and he now searched solemnly for vindication. The central character of Destry, more comedic than most Western central characters, displayed a realistic touch of caution, even cowardice, as he roamed the West looking for the men who had framed him for embezzlement.
Offering two to three dozen shows per season could be creatively exhausting for a popular series. Producers and writers learned early the imitative "recombinant style" that sociologist Todd Gitlin described as one which "collects the old in new packages and hopes for a magical synthesis." Some writers simply revamped plots drawn from other genres (even from other Westerns), set them on the frontier, and converted them into Westerns. In this way in "Twenty-Four Hours to Live"—an episode of The Texan aired June 27, 1960—cowboy Bill Longley used classic detective techniques to deduce the identity of the killer from a gallery of likely suspects. "Brothers of the Knife," an installment of Wichita Town telecast October 28, 1959, took a theme familiar to gangster films—organized crime extracting protection money from innocent citizens—and told of two Mafiosi attempting to extort monthly fees from Italian immigrants living in nineteenth-century Wichita. More a modern horror story than a Western, "The Killer," a Black Saddle program broadcast on January 1, 1960, concerned a psychotic murderer terrorizing frontier Latigo, New Mexico.
In their search for novel programs, writers created entire series by melding other genres into the Old West. This was accomplished notably in The Wild, Wild West, which was both a Western set in the last century and a spy fantasy reminiscent of contemporary James Bond films. It was accomplished with less distinction in Western situation comedies such as F Troop, Rango, and Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats.
Still another avenue to recombinant "creativity" was to cull plots from the great literature of the past. Bonanza made use of themes in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Mary W. Shelley's Frankenstein. Guy de Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" became an episode of Have Gun Will Travel. Producer Roy Huggins admitted to committing "affectionate larceny" in finding story lines for Maverick in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, and William Shakespeare's Othello."
More than an outlet for reworked classic literature, however, one executive argued that the adult TV Western was itself the stuff of sublime human drama. Speaking in 1957, Richard Dorso, head of programs for Ziv Television Productions and producer of Tombstone Territory, contended that Westerns were the closest modern reflection of classical Greek tragedy, in which you did not control your fate; it was inevitable—death stood waiting for you. You have the same sort of inevitability when two men face each other on the street of a frontier town and are forced to shoot it out. It's Oedipus meeting his father; it's inevitable, it must happen.
Despite such strengths, even in its adult style the video Western possessed a formulaic nature. The forces of law and order invariably were victorious; continuing characters did not die; and stories carried a positive social message. Such qualities placed definite restrictions on literary imagination.
Frank Gruber, a long-time writer of Westerns and co-producer of Tales of Wells Fargo recognized the formula within the genre. After 15 years of creating cowboy dramas, he was convinced that there were basically seven types of Westerns:
1) The Union Pacific story—tales of the construction of railroad, telegraph, or stagecoach lines, or stories of wagon trains crossing the mountains and/or plains
2) The Ranch story—tales of cattlemen, rustlers, and the rivalries between homesteaders and ranchers, or sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers
3) The Empire story—focusing more closely on the large ranches or powerful families in the West, it is the Ranch story on a larger scale
4) The Revenge story—the account of righting a wrong, even if it takes years of pursuit
5) Custer's Last Stand—the story of the conflict between Indians and the Cavalry 6) The Outlaw story—one that focuses, usually sympathetically, on the plight of the bandit struggling against society
7) The marshal story—the tale of the dedicated lawman.
The degree to which Western story lines followed a predictable course was strikingly exhibited in October 1960, when CBS telecast a cowboy drama actually composed by a computer. After being fed details for a short sketch, the TX-O computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology churned out 50 plots illustrating variations possible with the given information. On the special science series, Tomorrow, actor David Wayne starred in samples of the computer's literary skills."