When I was about 10 years old, I was a big westerns fan—couldn't get enough of the 'oaters' on television. I didn't go to the theater that often at that time, but I did watch a horrendous amount of television. My favorite genres were westerns and horror/scifi. The only difference between the two was I didn't have to watch the westerns from between spread fingers or run out of the room (unless there was a kissing scene [yuck!]).
Bring on the Cowboys
In the mid 50s there were a lot of westerns on the air. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry were the dominant cowboys at the time, having the same type adventures they'd had in their big screen movies. Buffalo Bill Jr. Annie Oakley, Range Rider, and Kit Carson to name a few, were brand new TV creations but in the same mold as Hoppy, Gene, and Roy. As fun as these shows were to watch, they were Saturday-matinee style kiddie entertainment, all about action with no subtlety. There was room for Western shows with better stories and more fleshed-out characters, and "adult Westerns" like Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel arrived to fill this blank space. Some of these new Westerns had more talk than they did action, but that was not the case with the western shows that came from Warner Bros., which served up several years' worth of action, adventure, and darn good storytelling.
In 1955, Warner Bros.' new TV division, under the leadership of William T. Orr, launched an action-packed western on 'primetime' titled Cheyenne. Clint Walker played the title role of Cheyenne Bodie, a former army scout who now drifted around the West taking on odd jobs. One week might find Bodie a marshal, the next week a trail boss, a third a Cavalry scout.
The Cheyenne title came from a 1947 WB western feature starring Dennis Morgan, but the new show had no other connection to the old movie. Some of the early Cheyenne episodes, however, were remakes of old Warner Bros. films—the pilot episode was a reworking of Rocky Mountain, an Errol Flynn Western, while other early episodes were remakes of Paul Muni's Bordertown and the classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Incidentally, one of the guest stars in the pilot was James Garner, who had been a runner-up for the Cheyenne role and went on to star in his own Warner Bros. western, Maverick.
Cheyenne originally debuted on the ABC television network as part of a three-show rotation that ran under the umbrella title of Warner Brothers Presents. Cheyenne's two partners in rotation were Casablanca and Kings Row, also based on old Warner Brothers movies, but Cheyenne did the best in the ratings, and thus became the sole survivor of the trio the following year.
In 1957, a contract dispute between Cheyenne star Clint Walker and Warner Brothers caused Walker to walk out from the show. Involved in the dispute were clauses in Walker's contract requiring that he kick back half of all personal appearance fees to Warner Bros., and that he only record for Warner music labels. Actor Ty Hardin replaced Walker, playing a new character called Bronco Layne, but the show retained the Cheyenne title. When Walker returned to the show in 1958, Bronco was given its own time slot.
In 1957, Warners brought out Maverick, which starred James Garner as wandering gambler Bret Maverick. In the earlier episodes of the show, Maverick was a tough, scrupulously honest Western hero, although a slick and wily gambler. As the show continued, though, star Garner and producer Roy Huggins (later, creator of The Fugitive and The Rockford Files) brought a different feel to Maverick, making its hero a charming con-man who would never get involved in trouble unless it was absolutely necessary-which the show's writers always made sure of. Maverick was often on the outs with the law, but more often than not aided the local legal efforts in thwarting criminals-and if he made some extra money for himself out of the deal, he never complained.
Warner Brothers quickly discovered that it took them more than a week to film a single TV episode, so in the eighth week of Maverick, Jack Kelly was introduced as Bret's brother Bart like his brother a handsome lady's man with a gift of gab that often put everyone off their guard. Warners then set up separate units to film Bret and Bart episodes at the same time, so a Maverick episode would always be ready to air. Every now and then, the schedule would allow the brothers to co-star in an adventure.
When Garner left Maverick for movie stardom in 1960, Roger Moore was brought on board as Bret and Bart's cousin Beau, and continued to rotate adventures with Kelly. When Moore too went on to bigger things in 1961, Warners tried out Robert Colbert as a new Maverick brother, Brent, but only kept him around for two episodes. For the final 61-62 season, Kelly had the show to himself, alternating his own new episodes with rerun Garner episodes from the earlier seasons.
Maverick was probably the most popular and the best remembered of the Warner Brothers westerns, though Cheyenne lasted the longest of all of the shows.
The next western to enter the Warner's stable of oaters was Sugarfoot. When Cheyenne lost its earlier partners in rotation, and when its 1956 partner, an anthology show called Conflict, failed to survive as well, Warner Brothers encountered the same trouble in filming weekly episodes that they had run into with Maverick. To solve the problem, they introduced a new show in 1958 to alternate with Cheyenne—namely, Sugarfoot. A "Sugarfoot," by the way, is one step lower than a "Tenderfoot."
Will Hutchins played the "Sugarfoot" of the title, Tom Brewster, a law student who drifted from town to town, taking on all the bad guys he came across, although he preferred to use law and his wits to get the better of them, and only used a gun as a last resort. The Brewster character had been played by Will Rogers Jr. in a Warner Brothers movie called The Boy from Oklahoma, and Hutchins' persona was partly based on the Rogers family image and partly on Jimmy Stewart's "Destry" from Destry Rides Again. Hutchins' Brewster had a youthful look and mild, folksy manner which often put bad guys off their guard, but he could always be depended upon to save the day, despite his easy-going disposition. Perhaps due to its offbeat hero, Sugarfoot was the runt of Warner Brothers' hour-long Westerns litter, ; always lower in the ratings than the others, it was the first to be canceled.
When Clint Walker returned to Cheyenne (see the Cheyenne discussion above) Ty Hardin's Bronco Layne got a show of his own, which joined Sugarfoot and Cheyenne for a three-way rotation. Bronco was a former Confederate officer who roamed the West in the same way Cheyenne did, although his more hot-headed and fun-loving personality was quite different from the quiet-spoken Cheyenne's. The three-way rotation continued until 1961, when Sugarfoot was canceled; Bronco lasted another year and then was dropped as well, but Warner Brothers utilized both heroes on Cheyenne, as regular co-stars who alternated with Cheyenne and each other and occasionally teamed up in the same fashion as the Maverick clan, until Cheyenne too came to an end in 1963.
Other Westerns on the Warner Brothers weeknight line-up included the half-hour shows Colt 45, and Lawman, both of which began in 1958. The former starred Wayde Preston as Christopher Colt, an undercover federal marshal who posed as a gun salesman, and the latter featured John Russell and Peter Brown as Laramie Sheriff Dan Troop and Deputy Johnny McKay. Lawman was unique among Warner Bros. shows in that it featured a hero tied to one town in the same way as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke was, and not a "drifter" hero like all the other Warner's shows. It ran four seasons, being more successful than Colt 45, which only lasted three seasons due to contract disputes between Preston and Warner Brothers. Preston walked out after the first season, to be replaced by Donald May, a weaker actor, for the second season, and when Preston returned for a third season, the show had already dropped too far in the ratings to be saved.
A new hour-long show, The Alaskans, was added to the Warner Brothers stable in 1959, to cash in on the Alaska-boom inspired by the admission of the 50th state. It starred Roger Moore and Jeff York as Silky Harris and Reno McKee, gold-seekers in an Alaska boomtown, and co-starred Dorothy Provine as saloon proprietress Rocky Shaw, but it only last a season due to a writers' strike that hit the same year.
The Writers’ Strike and W. Hermanos
A writers' strike in the 60's caused Warner Brothers to do some fancy foot-work. To keep their stable of shows running, they reused scripts from earlier shows—for example, Maverick's second episode "Point Blank" became "The Perfect Setup," on Warners' detective show 77 Sunset Strip, while old Cheyenne episodes were dusted off for Maverick and Bronco. The "new" scripts were credited to W. Hermanos, who did not exist. The name was an alias for Warner Brothers (In Spanish, "W. Hermanos" is "W. Brothers"). The Alaskans and the detective show Bourbon Street Beat, both launched the year of the strike, could not build a new fan base with episodes made up entirely of old stuff, so they both bit the dust after a single season, while the already-established Western and detective shows weathered the storm.
Even before Bronco and Sugarfoot moved under the umbrella of the Cheyenne show (see above), characters from the different Warner's westerns were well acquainted, frequently making guest appearances on another's program the same way the comic book superheroes would (when they all were published by the same outfit, that is). Lawman's Deputy Johnny McKay testified in "The Trial of the Canary Kid" on Sugarfoot. Maverick had a cameo-loaded episode in 1960, "Hadley's Hunters," featuring John Russell (Lawman), Ty Hardin (Bronco), Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), Clint Walker (Cheyenne), and Peter Brown (Lawman) all in their own show's character, along with an apparently time-traveling Edd Byrnes from 77 Sunset Strip. You don't see that sort of interplay that often these days. Tom 'Sugarfoot' Brewster seemed to do the most crossover work. He appeared on most of the Warner's westerns, perhaps as a way to boost his somewhat neglected show's popularity. Wayde Preston of Colt 45, another show underwatched because of circumstances mentioned above, also appeared on other stars' shows more often during his show's faltering third season.
The westerns have gone the way of the Dodo now-a-days. Fan interest changes with the tide it seems. Westerns shifted to crime dramas, then to comedies and on and on. This former 10-year-old wouldn't complain too much if westerns made a comeback.
Here are some pictures from the different Warner Brothers westerns: