The Portrayal of the American Cowboy in TV Series
The “New Frontier” brought into US homes via TV screens in the late 1940s was an old frontier – the television version of the American frontier of the late 19th century.
It all started in 1949 with “The Hopalong Cassidy Show,” a program made with edits from William Boyd’s 66 cowboy films, in which the kindly and virtuous Hoppy bested all kinds of evil-doers. The show captured an audience, which meant imitators cluttered the range. Many of these became long-running and popular shows, with somewhat similar herods — the Roy Rogers show and Gene Autry shows, close cousins to the original “Hopalongs,” but soon crowded into a kids’ corner by the somewhat more adult westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, Wagon Train and Maverick.
The crowd of TV westerns — including those aimed at an older audience as “adult westerns” — increased until 1959, when viewers could choose among 26 such shows during prime viewing time. During one week in March, eight of the ten top shows were westerns.
Westerns’ popularity began to fade in the 1960s. A major reason came through criticism by parental groups because of too much violence.
“Gunsmoke” and “Death Valley Days” were the last of the popular westerns, and they folded by 1975.
But even though the westerns faded, they left the memory of such never-to-be-forgotten heroes as Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke,” the enigmatic Paladin of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and the unforgettable “Lone Ranger” with his quiet but reliable sidekick, the Native American Tonto.
Other shows with story ideas outside the traditional western them captured the public’s imagination. “The Wild Wild West” added spy-thriller and science gadgets to the beloved format. “McCloud” placed the western theme in the city, “Kung Fu” gained fame as a western featuring Asian unarmed combat and “Little House on the Prairie” blended western life with family life.
Fiction proved more popular than truth in TV westerns. For example, although Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans played key roles in the real-life west, TV viewers would not ordinarily see them as a part of the “traditional” west.
Aside from the Asian influence in “Kung Fu,” and the Hispanic influence in “Zorro,” the TV west was all white guys all the time – despite factual history.