Shooting Stars of the Small Screen: Encyclopedia of TV Western Actors, 1946– Present
by Douglas Brode, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2009, $39.95.
For those of us who saw our first Westerns on the small screen more than half a century ago and still haven’t seen enough of them (thank goodness for satellite TV and DVDs), this 370-page work is a childhood dream come true—an A-to-Z encyclopedia from Lee Aaker (the buddy of cavalry dog Rin Tin Tin) to Anthony Zerbe (see earlier review of The Young Riders). Teacher/writer Douglas Brode spends his time with 450 actors who received star billing or played a recurring role in a TV Western series or a made-for-TV Western movie or miniseries.
Yes, most of these memorable good guys and bad guys are now quite old or dead. For the most part, Brode spends his time and space wisely, providing not only highlights of each Western actor’s career but also enough intriguing tidbits to make it virtually impossible to put the book down and watch today’s network drivel. On the set of The Guns of Will Sonnett (1967–69), classic character actor Walter Brennan purportedly cheered and did a jig after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. John Derek (1926–98), who starred with giraffes and elephants in Frontier Circus (1961–62), was married four times, and three of his wives were Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek. The High Chaparral (1967–71) featured two stereotype-breaking “Mexicans” in Argentinean Linda Cristal as Victoria Cannon and Puerto Rico–raised Henry Darrow as Manolito Montoya.
No doubt some entries could have been longer, and there could have been many more pictures (to better match faces with names), but that would have made this a multivolume work. At more than three pages, James Garner has one of the longer entries, yet that will never be enough for those of us who loved the original Maverick and also never missed an episode of his little remembered Nichols (1971–72). Brode readily admits he devotes more space analyzing those shows and stars he believes “made the greatest contributions.”
These shows made contributions? Yes, indeed. “If today’s pop culture/TV allows us a window, however distorted, on our world,” Brode writes, “then artifacts from yesteryear let us glance into a mirror that reflects the way we were.” Just listen to what he says about Cheyenne (1955–62), the first hour-long TV Western, starring 6-foot-6 Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie: “Cheyenne transformed into something no other TV Western of its era achieved: a mythological epic. Audiences accepted Bodie, whether they were conscious of it or not, as an embodiment of everything good and right in the American spirit, a man who hates violence but could turn deadly when circumstances demanded.” Walker and Garner are thankfully still with us. As for embodying everything good and right in the American spirit, that’s one concept that should never die.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.