Westerns once reigned supreme

Not long ago, the Western channel on my television devoted a weekend to a couple of Westerns from the 1950s and '60s: The Rifleman and Bat Masterson. My wife was out of town, so I spent hours revisiting some of my childhood heroes.


Westerns were the Law & Orders of their day - all over the dial every night. Derided by some as "horse operas" or "oaters," they were the most popular genre for many years.

The Rifleman and Bat Masterson were among those I used to watch. Like all that stand out in my memory, these shows had a gimmick, often a weapon.

The Rifleman was a rarity in the crowded field: a serious, violent drama (it was created by Sam Peckinpah) that placed family values high - even though the family was just widower Lucas McCain and his son, Mark.

The real star of the show, as far as boys were concerned, was the Winchester rifle that Lucas had altered so he could cock it by spinning it in his hand. A little device activated the trigger as soon as the lever closed, allowing him to cock and fire repeatedly in quick, effortless motions.

That rifle was so popular that a toy company came out with a kids' version. Chuck Caheely was the only kid in my fifth-grade class who had one, and when he took it to school (those were different days, my friend) the rest of us traded him our lunches so we could play with it.

Bat Masterson was more frivolous. It was based on a real frontier lawman (and later, New York City sportswriter), but the weekly stories were fictionalized. Bat was a dude dressed in an Eastern suit and derby who gambled in bars and flirted with women. He carried a cane to conk bad guys on the head, hence the name Bat.

No gimmick was as good as being a masked good guy in an Old West filled with masked bad guys. The Lone Ranger was an ambushed Texas ranger nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto. He wore a black mask, shot silver bullets and lived by a strict code.

The Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho were Mexicans who somehow were treated pretty well by the outlaws and rustlers, who weren't known, as a group, for their cultural awareness.

Hopalong Cassidy was a dignified older man with silver hair and black attire who finessed his way through the West.

Have Gun - Will Travel featured another sophisticated man in black, Paladin, who was, according to the theme song, " a knight without armor in a savage land." He didn't hesitate to shoot the bad guys, but he lived in a fancy hotel and carried a calling card that advised potential clients: "Wire Paladin, San Francisco."

In Wanted: Dead or Alive, a young Steve McQueen carried a sawed-off rifle in a pistol holster that swiveled so he didn't have to actually draw his gun.

I never wore a gun like that in The Rifleman or Wanted: Dead or Alive, but after seeing the Disney series Texas John Slaughter, I pinned the brim of my cowboy hat up in front so I would look like that Texas Ranger.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp's famed lawman used his long-barreled Buntline Special pistol to immobilize lawbreakers much like his buddy Bat.

In Yancy Derringer, a fictional riverboat gambler carried a derringer (naturally) up his sleeve or in his hat so he could catch crooks unaware. Another show about a real weapon was The Adventures of Jim Bowie, whose namesake wielded a massive knife he supposedly designed.

Johnny Yuma was a Rebel, and in The Rebel he wandered the West wearing his Confederate cap from the Civil War. Needless to say, he got into a lot of fights.

Sky King was set in the modern day (the 1950s, anyway), with an airplane in a starring role.

The kings of cowboy TV, of course, were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, who set themselves apart from the herd with their guitars and songs. I miss them every one.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.



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