I wasn’t allowed to watch much television when I was a child. My mother thought it prudent to limit the amount of time that I spent sitting in front of the box with its black and white images. She much preferred that I play outside or read. As the popularity of this new invention grew she began to relent just a bit but still insisted that she be the one to chose the programming that I was allowed to see. Being a woman she wasn’t particularly inclined to select westerns but for me those were far and away the best of the offerings.
The first adult western offered during primetime viewing hours was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O’Brian, a dashingly handsome man who supposedly was chosen for the role because he resembled an early photograph of the real Wyatt Earp. The show premiered in September of 1955 and ran until 1961. Four weeks after Wyatt Earp came on the air Gunsmoke joined its ranks. At one point in time there were more than twenty different western themed series being offered by the three big networks, many of them inspired by the success of Wyatt Earp.
I loved visiting my uncles Jack and Louie. They were western fanatics and while my mother was being otherwise entertained I was able to get my fill of those remarkable programs while sitting next to them in the dark. The lead characters became my heroes and I learned the theme songs for my favorite shows by heart. I’d ride around the neighborhood on my bicycle bellowing, “Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold. Long live his fame and long live his glory and long may his story be told.” It gave me a bit of credibility with my friends to be so well versed in the more important aspects of kid life.
I had little idea that there had actually been a real man named Wyatt Earp whose story was a bit less impressive than the television counterpart. I only knew that he and the other cowboys who lit up the screen were always good looking, brave, honest and loyal men who fought for what was right. They were role models for all time. Little did I understand that in reality the men and women of the wild west hardly resembled their Hollywood posers. I innocently dreamed of their exploits and heroics and sometimes imagined that my two uncles might have made fine lawmen had they happened to live in the era portrayed on the screens each evening.
Westerns were popular at the movies as well as on television. Gene Autry was a singing cowboy and Alan Ladd was a brooding cowboy but the best of the lot was John Wayne. I loved every one of his movies and luckily so did my mom. Most people choose True Grit as his best role but I was a huge fan of Stagecoach and The Searchers. Somehow I imagined that every place west of San Antonio was filled with horse riding, gun toting heroes as amiable and charismatic as John Wayne.
Perhaps television and film producers alike created a few too many westerns back then much like the reality programming of today and the public grew weary of the sameness of the shows. Slowly but surely the old westerns were replaced with other fan favorites. Now cowboy shows are a rarity which is a shame because some of them really were quite good. Maybe we just outgrew them and began to realize that the image of the great hero of the old west was little more than a myth. We may have just become too cool for those guys with their ten gallon hats and boots.
I remembered how much I had enjoyed those stories when actor Hugh O’Brien recently died at the age of ninety one. I hadn’t really thought about him for years and I was actually surprised that he had grown so old. In my mind he was still a young lion in his early thirties with that steely eyed expression that told outlaws that he meant business. He seemed to be the perfect man to keep a town safe. Watching him in action always made me feel a bit more secure even in the real world. Hearing of his passing was like acknowledging the end of an era.
They say that what goes around comes around and I often wish that there might be a revival of the old westerns. I’ve heard that Longmire is a somewhat reasonable facsimile of those old shows so I may have to check it out soon. I still think that the viewing public might appreciate a well crafted western. Perhaps once we the audience have had our fill of present day offerings someone will think to create a really good story about the characters who roamed in the days when the western expanses of our country were wild and unpredictable.
We seem to be a bit down on cowboys and ranchers these days. I suppose that some of those of old did things that were of questionable morals but someone with a very creative mind should be able to create a character who is real and not just a cardboard caricature. It might be a compelling program that explores the complexities of that era with an imperfect but somewhat noble hero. I tend to think that Darrell of The Walking Dead is cut very much from the old western cloth. It shouldn’t be that difficult to build a story around such a man.
We’ve lost most of the actors who made those roles come to life and brought little kids like me so much delight. I for one think it’s time again to “Head ’em up, move ’em on.” We’re ready for another Rawhide.