Ten Best Television Western Shows

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Old classic TV westerns rule the range. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Big Valley, The Virginian, Wagon Train, Maverick, The Rifleman, Little House on the Prairie and The Wild, Wild West are the best television shows.

The TV western series has been a staple on the small screen since the late 1940s. Here are ten classic television westerns that are sure to please die-hard cowboy fans. Head 'em up! Move 'em out!

Gunsmoke (CBS-TV, 1955-75)

Gunsmoke may well be one of the finest TV shows ever produced. The series began on radio in 1952, with William Conrad providing the voice of Marshal Matt Dillon. On September 10, 1955, Gunsmoke debuted as a half-hour series on CBS-TV, with big John Wayne introducing the first episode, "Matt Gets It." In his introduction Wayne informed viewers that what they were about to see was a new kind of western. The Duke proved to be prophetic, as Gunsmoke – later expanded to an hour in the fall of 1961 – took TV land by storm. Big, strapping James Arness played the venerable Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon, with Amanda Blake (Kitty Russell), Milburn Stone (Doc Adams), Dennis Weaver (Chester Goode), Burt Reynolds (Quint Asper), Ken Curtis (Festus Haggen), Buck Taylor (Newly O'Brien) and Glenn Strange (Sam Noonan) all appearing as regulars at some point during the show's glorious 20-year run. A round of drinks at Miss Kitty's Long Branch Saloon in a long, overdue toast to Gunsmoke!

Number of episodes: 635

Notable guest stars: Jack Elam, Jack Lord, Leonard Nimoy, Wayne Rogers, Julie Sommars, Bruce Dern, Beau Bridges, Lew Ayres, Kim Darby, Victor French, Ralph Bellamy, Ronny Howard, William Conrad, Loretta Swit, Slim Pickens, Harry Morgan, Ruth Roman, Kim Hunter, Jack Albertson, Royal Dano, Jodie Foster, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Learned, Gary Busey

Choice episode: "Whelan's Men" (2/5/73) with Robert Burr and Harrison Ford. Kitty Russell plays for Matt Dillon's life in the ultimate poker game.

Gunsmoke, l-r: James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Milburn Stone (CBS)

Bonanza (NBC-TV, 1959-73)

The men of the Ponderosa, led by patriarch Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, traversed and defended their 600,000 acre ranch near Virginia City, Nevada, for 14 memorable television seasons. Ably assisting widower Pa Cartwright were his three sons: Pernell Roberts (Adam), Dan Blocker (Hoss) and Michael Landon (Little Joe). Bonanza made its debut during the heyday of the TV western, premiering on September 12, 1959, with the episode "A Rose for Lotta." Who could forget Bonanza's dynamite opening, as a map of the Ponderosa burst into flames and the Cartwright clan came riding in on horseback? "You're on Ponderosa land!" Ben and his boys were fond of telling trespassers. And boy, they meant it.

Number of episodes: 430

Notable guest stars: Yvonne De Carlo, Guy Williams, Dennis Hopper, Rory Calhoun, Charles Bronson, Cesar Romero, Telly Savalas, Tim Considine, Eric Fleming, Dina Merrill, Wayne Newton, Burgess Meredith, Wally Cox, Sidney Blackmer, Simon Oakland, Rip Torn, Will Geer, Buddy Ebsen, Tim Matheson

Choice episode: "Invention of a Gunfighter" (9/20/64) with Guy Stockwell. Once-timid Johnny Chapman becomes a notorious gunfighter after Little Joe teaches him how to handle a six-shooter.

Rawhide (CBS-TV, 1959-66)

The seemingly endless cattle drive from North Texas to Sedalia, Kansas, made for some high, dusty drama in this popular TV western that starred Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates. Also on hand at various stages of production were Jim Murdock (Mushy), Paul Brinegar (Wishbone), Sheb Wooley (Pete Nolan), Steve Raines (Jim Quince) and Raymond St. Jacques (Simon Blake), et al. Created by Charles Marquis Warren, Rawhide debuted on January 9, 1959, with the episode "Incident of the Tumbleweed." Frankie Laine performed Rawhide's memorable theme song: "Keep rollin', rollin', rollin', Though the streams are swollen, Keep them doggies rollin', rawhide. Through rain and wind and weather, Hell bent for leather, Wishin' my gal was by my side..."

Number of episodes: 217

Notable guest stars: Troy Donahue, Martin Milner, Martin Balsam, Lon Chaney Jr., Marie Windsor, DeForest Kelley, Jack Lord, Martin Landau, Anne Francis, Vera Miles, Rick Jason, Frances Bavier, Cloris Leachman, James Franciscus, Peter Lorre, Robert Culp, John Cassavetes, Leonard Nimoy, Darren McGavin, Barbara Eden, Broderick Crawford, Lee Van Cleef, Fritz Weaver, Eddie Albert, Bruce Dern, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson

Choice episode: "Incident at Alabaster Plain" (1/16/59) with Mark Richman, Martin Balsam and Troy Donahue. Rowdy Yates faces gunfighter Ward Mastic following the wedding of an old Army buddy. 

Rawhide, l-r: Eric Fleming, Clint Eastwood (CBS)

The Big Valley (ABC-TV, 1965-69)

The Barkley clan of Stockton, California, rode the post-Civil War West for four eventful television seasons. Miss Barbara Stanwyck played the family matriarch Victoria Barkley, with Richard Long (Jarrod), Peter Breck (Nick), Lee Majors (Heath) and Linda Evans (Audra) as her headstrong offspring. Like Bonanza's the Cartwrights, the Barkleys were a prosperous brood, with interests in cattle, mining and timber. Jarrod was a practicing lawyer, while hot-headed Nick supervised the 30,000 acre spread with help from half-brother Heath. The fair, blue-eyed blond Audra provided the show's beauty, and often attracted her share of psychotic suitors. The Big Valley debuted on September 15, 1965, with the episode "Palms of Glory."

Number of episodes: 112

Notable guest stars: Katharine Ross, Charles Bronson, Martin Landau, William Shatner, Ronny Howard, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy, James Whitmore, Colleen Dewhurst, Bradford Dillman, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, Susan Strasberg, Judy Carne, Julie Adams, Regis Philbin, Adam West, Carol Lynley, Robert Loggia, Marty Allen

Choice episode: "The Death Merchant" (2/23/66) with James Whitmore and Royal Dano. Grizzled killer-for-hire Handy Random, the avenger of Tom Barkley's murderer, visits the family and quickly interjects himself in a range war.

The Virginian (NBC-TV, 1962-71)

James Drury had the title role in this big, sprawling TV western based on the classic novel by Owen Wister. Also on hand at various stages during the show's nine-year run were Doug McClure (Trampas), Lee J. Cobb (Judge Henry Garth), Roberta Shore (Betsy Garth), Sara Lane (Elizabeth Grainger), Clu Gulager (Emmett Ryker), Randy Boone (Randy Garth), David Hartman (David Sutton), et al. Also known as The Men from Shiloh, The Virginian, set at picturesque Shiloh Ranch near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, made its debut on September 19, 1962, with the segment "The Executioners."  

Number of episodes: 249

Notable guest stars: Hugh O'Brian, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nancy Sinatra, Robert Redford, Joan Blondell, Elinor Donahue, Leonard Nimoy, Jack Klugman, Bruce Dern, Robert Culp, Barbara Eden, Fabian, James MacArthur, Charles Bronson, Pernell Roberts, Hugh Beaumont, Brandon De Wilde, Ellen Burstyn, William Shatner, Dennis Weaver, Tab Hunter, Ricardo Montalban, Chuck Connors

Choice episode: "The Hour of the Tiger" (12/30/64) with John Bryant, Tom Tully, Tom Simcox and Cely Carillo. Judge Garth is forced to bring in Chinese laborers in order to clear a pass through the mountains for his cattle. Standing in his way is neighbor and one-time friend Junius Antlow.

The Virginian starring James Drury (NBC)

Wagon Train (NBC-TV/ABC-TV, 1957-65)

The long, dusty trail from Missouri to California was the setting of this popular Old West road trip series. Ward Bond served as wagonmaster Major Seth Adams from 1957 until his death in 1960. John McInire replaced Bond as Chris Hale. Other regulars included Robert Horton (Flint McCullough), Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster), Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks), Robert Fuller (Cooper Smith) and Denny Miller (Duke Shannon). One of TV's more literate oaters, Wagon Train debuted on September 18, 1957, with the episode "The Willy Moran Story."

Number of episodes: 284

Notable guest stars: Ernest Borgnine, Agnes Moorehead, Cesar Romero, Nick Adams, Marjorie Main, Lou Costello, Rhonda Fleming, Chill Wills, James Coburn, Virginia Mayo, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Montgomery, Peter Lorre, Leonard Nimoy, Mickey Rooney, Lon Chaney Jr., Martin Landau, Robert Vaughn, Beulah Bondi, Lee Marvin, Rod Steiger, Robert Blake, Polly Bergen, Claude Rains, Robert Culp, Jane Wyatt, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Fonda, Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan, Peter Falk, Jack Lord, Jay North

Choice episode: "The Elizabeth McQueeney Story" (10/28/59) with Bette Davis and Robert Strauss. A group of showgirls join the wagon train, headed west where their "mentor," Elizabeth McQueeney, plans to start an entertainment emporium. 

Maverick (ABC-TV, 1957-62)

James Garner had the title role of Bret Maverick, a suave, fast-talking gambler who plied his poker-playing skills in the Old West. Also on hand was Jack Kelly as Bret's equally dapper brother Bart Maverick. Following a contract dispute with Warner Bros. Television, Garner left the series after the 1960-61 TV season, leaving Kelly as the lead actor. Created by Roy Huggins, Maverick debuted on September 22, 1957, with the segment "War of the Silver Kings." Maverick was one of the more sophisticated, adult serio-comic westerns of its era and spoofed both Gunsmoke and Bonanza in the episodes "Gunshy" and "Three Queens Full," respectively. Maverick's theme song told the story: "Who is the tall, dark stranger there? Maverick is the name. Ridin' the trail to who knows where, Luck is his companion, Gamblin' is his game..."

Number of episodes: 124

Notable guest stars: Clint Eastwood, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, Werner Klemperer, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Wayne Morris, Robert Conrad, Wayde Preston, Louise Fletcher, Troy Donahue, Adam West, John Astin, Will Hutchins, Peter Breck, Chad Everett, Reginald Owen

Choice episode: "Duel at Sundown" (2/1/59) with Clint Eastwood, Edgar Buchanan and Abby Dalton. Gunslinger Red Hardigan demands that Bret Maverick skedaddle out of town by sundown – or else.

Maverick starring James Garner (ABC)

The Rifleman (ABC-TV, 1958-63)

Chuck Connors starred as widower Lucas McCain, with Johnny Crawford appearing as his son Mark. The steely-eyed Lucas wielded a mean, specially-made .44 Winchester rifle, which he often used to great effect to help out North Fork's ineffective marshal Micah Torrance, played by Paul Fix. The show's opening sequence was wild, as "Lucas Boy's" rifle furiously spit out bullets, with the camera then zooming in on the taciturn Chuck Connors. The Rifleman premiered on September 30, 1958, with the episode "The Sharpshooter." Sam Peckinpah, later known for his violent movie westerns (The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee, et al.), directed four episodes.

Number of episodes: 168

Notable guest stars: Dennis Hopper, Sidney Blackmer, James Drury, Dan Blocker, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Vic Morrow, Lee Van Cleef, Michael Landon, Adam West, Grace Lee Whitney, Sammy Davis Jr.

Choice episode: "The Marshal" (10/21/58) with James Drury, R.G. Armstrong, Robert J. Wilke and Warren Oates. Gunslingers Lloyd Carpenter and the Sheltin brothers come gunning for alcoholic ex-marshal Micah Torrance, who is drying out at the McCain ranch.

Little House on the Prairie (NBC-TV, 1974-83)

Based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie featured the trials and tribulations of the Ingalls family on the 19th century American frontier. Michael Landon (Charles Ingalls), Karen Grassle (Caroline), Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Lindsay/Sidney Greenbush (Carrie) headed the original cast. A contingent of supporting players graced the series during its stellar nine-year run, including Katherine "Scottie" MacGregor (Harriet Oleson), Richard Bull (Nels Oleson), Jonathan Gilbert (Willie Oleson), Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson), Matthew Laborteaux (Albert Ingalls), Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) and Merlin Olsen (Jonathan Garvey). Long on religious faith and can-do optimism, Little House on the Prairie debuted on September 11, 1974, with the segment "A Harvest of Friends."

Number of episodes: 205

Notable guest stars: Anne Archer, Red Buttons, Forrest Tucker, Richard Basehart, Johnny Crawford, Burl Ives, Ray Bolger, Barry Sullivan, Lew Ayres, Shannen Doherty,

Choice episode: "Plague" (1/29/75) with Kevin Hagen, Dabbs Greer and Robert Foulk. Typhoid rages in Walnut Grove as Charles, Reverend Alden and Dr. Baker try to pinpoint the source of the plague.

The Wild, Wild West (CBS-TV, 1965-69)

Robert Conrad and Ross Martin had the starring roles of James T. West and Artemus Gordon, respectively, two U.S. Secret Service agents who battled super villains in the Old West. Described by one critic as "James Bond on horseback," The Wild, Wild West was just that, as agents West and Gordon employed an array of gadgets and devices as they traversed the frontier and locked horns with their criminal, high-tech adversaries. Created by Michael Garrison, The Wild, Wild West debuted on September 17, 1965, with the episode "The Night of the Inferno." Dwarf actor Michael Dunn appeared in 10 episodes as the evil scientific genius Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

Number of episodes: 104

Notable guest stars: Carroll O'Connor, Suzanne Pleshette, Robert Loggia, Burgess Meredith, Robert Duvall, Nick Adams, Don Rickles, Sammy Davis Jr., Ricardo Montalban, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Dean Stanton, Jackie Coogan

Choice episode: "The Night Dr. Loveless Died" (9/29/67) with Michael Dunn and Susan Oliver. Agents West and Gordon report to a mortuary where they encounter a seemingly deceased Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

The Wild, Wild West, l-r: Ross Martin, Robert Conrad (CBS)

Ten More TV Western Favorites

  • Wanted – Dead or Alive (1958-61)
  • Death Valley Days (1952-75)
  • The Rebel (1959-61)
  • Cimarron Strip (1967-68)
  • The Lawman (1958-62)
  • Sugarfoot (1957-61)
  • Trackdown (1957-59)
  • The Lone Ranger (1949-57)
  • The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61)
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998)

Wanted – Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen (CBS)

Top Image

  • Gunsmoke, James Arness and Ken Curtis

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 


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