WILDER'S WHOLE WORLD: Remembering westerns

By Dwayne Wilder
Special to the Herald Democrat

With the recent passing of Johnny Crawford, who portrayed Mark on “The Rifleman” in the 1950-60s, I was taken back to the western of television history.

With the other major actors of that show gone for a long time, Crawford was my last tie to my favorite Western. He was a child actor so he naturally should be the last one to go. He played the son of Chuck Connors (‘The Rifleman’), a single parent rancher in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870s. It was just in Crawford’s obituary that I learned Connors’ character, Lucas McCain, was a Civil War veteran. That’s a cool addition to the backstory.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the ‘TV Western,’ but I know I enjoyed them; and still do, although I don’t watch them regularly any longer. Growing up was another story as television was in its first rerun cycle and ‘Wow!’ anyone could watch just about any Western on television from ‘Rawhide’ to ‘Bonanza.’

After World War II, television was in its infancy and in the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the Old West was still on the minds of Americans. There was still Indian reservation activity until 1934 out ‘West’ and almost everyone had a grandfather or older uncle who could tell stories of gunfighters and saloon brawls and showdowns with Indians from the late 1800s. The Old West was ripe for storytelling and television was the new medium to do it.

The Western was so entrenched in TV lore that when ‘Star Trek’ was pitched to television executives in the mid-1960s, one said, “So, it’s like ‘Wagon Train’ to the Stars.”

There were so many actors who got their start in television Westerns that almost all of them had that background when auditioning for later roles. For example, the aforementioned Star Trek included two actors who were from ‘Westerns’ including Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForrest Kelley (Dr. McCoy).

So, as I was coming of age in the late 1960s, I caught so many Westerns in the rerun format. “The Rifleman” was my favorite. I will admit that I haven’t seen all the episodes of the shows I will list, but ‘Rifleman’ came the closest. There may only be one or two episodes I haven’t seen. I was transfixed by the pilot episode when I saw it as an adult. It was the only time we got to see Mark’s mother. Coolness!

My next favorite was ‘Fury,’ about the horse of the same name and the family who owned him. Fury was sort of like the ‘Lassie’ of horses, but it was more realistic; and you could imagine something like that story actually happening in the Old West. I also loved “The Big Valley” and “High Chaparral,” which boasted Lee Majors and Leif Erickson, respectively. Barbara Stanwyck gave star power to ‘Valley’ and ‘Chaparral’ was just greatness!

I know it’s hard to believe, but I never watched the MOST classic Western “Gunsmoke” on television. It was still in first run airings when I came to TV, so I saw a few episodes here and there, but never ‘got’ it. (I did love Festus, though!) I also passed on ‘Rawhide,’ ‘Wagon Train’ and ‘The Virginian.’ But most of the others, I loved and watched on reruns. I remember Bonanza and the Ponderosa and of course, “The Lone Ranger,” a classic in its own right.

In recent years, there has come a revival of the ‘Westerns’ from television history, with some of the shows 70 years old now. There are  networks that only play Westerns such as GRIT-TV, WeTV and MeTV. (Some of these have expanded programming but are still heavily ‘Western.’)

It reminds me of the Independent stations of the 1990s, which would use a day – usually Sunday – to program Westerns all day. I remember scheduling my day around those great shows, which enjoyed renewed popularity from their 1970s rerun status. I guess the cycle is continuing again; just with entire networks this go around.

It is fitting for such programming as the Old West is simply the backdrop for great stories and relationships and challenges that the characters endure. It gives the viewer something to think about: How would I act in those circumstances? Would I make the same choices? It provokes the imagination…

What more could one ask from a time and a medium that fit together for the ages? 

Dwayne Wilder

Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at cmandad17@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.