Roundup of Top 15 Western Heroes in TV & Film

TV Western Heroes collage
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Saddle up as we present to you some of the most notable Western heroes from the big and small screens. They were brave, principled and tough! We combed through why they were so beloved, their best moments, tough talk plus even some fun facts. Giddy-up! 


RIO BRAVO, John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, 1959

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At His Best: As self-tortured Civil War vet Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, stalwart Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo and craggy one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

Why He Rates: The Duke is the gold standard. The era’s quintessential cowboy hero developed a walk, a talk and a style that could be imitated but never duplicated. Got that, pilgrim?

Tough Talk: “You look like the vermin-ridden son of a b@#$% you are.” — Wayne’s Wil Andersen said to Bruce Derns’ vile Asa Watts in The Cowboys. He’s not wrong.

Fun Fact: Wayne made more than 60 B-movies over eight years before John Ford cast him in 1939’s Stagecoach, and the rest is history.



THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, Clint Eastwood, 1966 [US: 1967]

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At His Best: As young ramrod Rowdy Yates in TV’s Rawhide, and the gruff and confident Man With No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Why He Rates: What Wayne is to classic cowboy films, Eastwood is to more contemporary ones. His spaghetti Westerns brought an updated tone to the genre that was just as memorable and significant as the Duke’s.

Tough Talk: “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” — As the title character in The Outlaw Josey Wales, talking to a bounty hunter before blowing him away.

Fun Fact: Weirdly, Universal fired Eastwood as a contract player in 1955 because they didn’t like his looks or prominent Adam’s apple. Three years later, Rawhide made him a star.



GUNSMOKE, (from left): James Arness, Amanda Blake, Ken Curtis, Milburn Stone, 1955-75.

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At His Best: Playing heroic, principled U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke and family patriarch Zeb Macahan on How the West Was Won.

Why He Rates: The main reason for Gunsmoke’s historic popularity was Arness, whose Dillon personified the tough but fair TV lawman of the 1950s and ’60s.

Tough Talk: “If you’re gonna use that gun, you better start on me.” — A message from Dillon to any outlaws planning to start trouble.

Fun Fact: The 6’7” Arness was one of the first American soldiers to storm an Italian beach during World War II. Lingering leg and foot injuries he suffered impacted Gunsmoke’s shooting schedule.



MAVERICK, Jack Kelly, James Garner, (1959), 1957-1962

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At His Best: As the handsome poker player Bret Maverick in Maverick and sharpshooting Jason McCollough in Support Your Local Sheriff!

Why He Rates: Garner used his immense charm and smarts to great effect while bringing a lighter, gently satirical touch to the genre. He knew how to have fun and was fun to watch.

Tough Talk: “Boy, it’s getting bad when you have to con your own horse for a ride.” — Maverick’s type of tough talk.

Fun Fact: The plot of Garner’s favorite Maverick episode, “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” was one of the main inspirations for the Oscar-winning film The Sting.



BONANZA, Michael Landon, 1959-73.

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At His Best: As youngest son Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza and definitively decent family man Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.

Why He Rates: Fans watched the handsome Little Joe grow into a responsible adult; his Charles Ingalls was the personification of a good man in the West who made you think everything was going to be OK.

Tough Talk: “Every job is good if you do your best and work hard.” — Sage wisdom was Charles Ingalls’ specialty.

Fun Fact: His two incredibly famous Western roles help explain why Landon appeared on the cover of TV Guide Magazine 22 times, second only to Lucille Ball.



THE NAKED SPUR, James Stewart, 1953.

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At His Best: As vengeful bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and aspiring lawyer and eventual U.S. Sen. Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Why He Rates: He might have been best known for films with Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, but he was just as good in Westerns, bringing conviction to roles from a morally ambiguous loner to a selfless cowboy.

Tough Talk: “Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be.” — As determined Glyn McLyntock in Bend of the River.

Fun Fact: He rode a horse named Pie in 17 Westerns.



HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL, Richard Boone, 1957-1963.

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At His Best: Playing gentleman investigator/gunfighter Paladin in Have Gun — Will Travel.

Why He Rates: There had never been a Western hero like Paladin before. He preferred to avoid violence, but was highly skilled with guns and fists. He dressed well, enjoyed fine wine and played piano. Boone excelled as this renaissance man.

Tough Talk: “I could always beat him. I let him think he was faster … because it pleased him.” — Paladin after gunning down an old friend gone bad.

Fun Fact: The episode “The Colonel and the Lady” was filmed on a set that later became the Long Branch Saloon on Gunsmoke.



THE LONE RANGER, from left: Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels, 1949-57.

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At Their Best: As, respectively, stalwart heroes the Lone Ranger and Tonto, who travel the West righting wrongs in the unruly territories.

Why They Rate: The Lone Ranger and Tonto were the perfect idealized heroes, a courageous, loyal duo that never stopped fighting for what they believed was right and just.

Tough Talk: “I told you, I don’t shoot to kill. I want a silver bullet to be a symbol of justice.” — The Lone Ranger expressing his mission.

Fun Fact: Moore is the only person on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to have a star with both his name and his character’s name.



THE RIFLEMAN, from left: Chuck Connors, Robert Vaughn, 'The Apprentice Sheriff', (Season 1, ep. 111, aired Dec. 9, 1958), 1958-1963.

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At His Best: As Civil War veteran, widower, father and rancher Lucas McCain on The Rifleman.

Why He Rates: McCain was a three-dimensional Western hero, a complicated man who deeply loved his son and didn’t shy away from showdowns. And watch out for his temper.

Tough Talk: “Yes, it would be real welcome to know what the man looks like that wants to kill me.” — You can bet Lucas got to that guy first.

Fun Fact: A gifted athlete, Connors played basketball for the Boston Celtics after World War II before switching to baseball, where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs.



HIGH NOON, Gary Cooper, 1952

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At His Best: Playing dutiful, brave town marshal Will Kane in High Noon.

Why He Rates: Not many men would stay in Hadleyville when they have a chance to leave, but Will Kane’s sense of purpose and honor made him face down Frank Miller and his men.

Tough Talk: “They’re making me run. I’ve never run from anybody before.” — Will explaining why he has to stay.

Fun Fact: The film revitalized Cooper’s sagging career, grossing $12 million (about $134 million in today’s dollars) in 1952, returning him to box office prominence and winning him an Oscar for Best Actor.



THE TALL T, Randolph Scott, Maureen O'Sullivan, 1957

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At His Best: As tough, charming and a bit larcenous Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country.

Why He Rates: Scott made dozens of Westerns over a lengthy career, playing many weathered, quiet-talking cowboys. He peaked in his final performance in Ride the High Country, as a roguish man with wavering integrity and plenty of quips.

Tough Talk: “Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day.” — Scott’s Pat Brennan said to a weeping newlywed after he’s killed their three murderous kidnappers in The Tall T.

Fun Fact: Scott’s face was reportedly the model for the logo of what is now the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, arguably the toughest team in league history.



THE TIN STAR, Henry Fonda, 1957

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At His Best: As fatherly bounty hunter Morgan Hickman in The Tin Star and perhaps cinema’s definitive Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.

Why He Rates: There was more to Fonda’s cowboy heroes than appeared on the surface, but the surface was pretty strong. His slow walk, strong shoulders and quiet demeanor hid a fiery determination.

Tough Talk: “A decent man doesn’t want to kill, but if you’re gonna shoot, you shoot to kill.” — Hickman imparting wisdom to Anthony Perkins’ young sheriff in The Tin Star.

Fun Fact: Fonda and best friend James Stewart costarred in two Westerns, Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club.



THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP, Hugh O'Brian, 'My Husband,' aired June 10, 1958

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At His Best: As the title lawman and gambler in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

Why He Rates: Cast in part because of a physical resemblance to Earp, O’Brian played the famed frontier marshal as a man of conscience who hates to kill but is deadly with a firearm nonetheless.

Tough Talk: “I want peace … [and] sometimes you can talk folks into being civilized; other times you gotta use a gun.” — Earp to an unpleasant fellow.

Fun Fact: Wanting to be as proficient as possible with a pistol, O’Brian said he spent a thousand or more hours practicing the quick draw after getting his signature role.



CHEYENNE, from left, Clint Walker, Lois Collier, 'West of the River,' aired March 10, 1956 (1955-63).

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At His Best: Playing the physically imposing, roaming cowboy Cheyenne Bodie on Cheyenne.

Why He Rates: His rugged frame and large physique (Walker was 6’6”) made Walker well suited to play a hero of the Old West, and he was extremely likable as a quiet, wise, respectful and loyal man wandering in search of frontier justice.

Tough Talk: “With you for a friend, a man would never need an enemy, would he?” — Bodie to a not-so-nice associate.

Fun Fact: Walker’s pleasant baritone singing voice led to Warner Bros. producing an album of him doing traditional songs and ballads.



WANTED - DEAD OR ALIVE, Steve McQueen, 1958-61

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At His Best: As Josh Randall, the bounty hunter with a soft heart in Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Why He Rates: Randall was a man who got things done. More than just a tough guy with a sawed-off Winchester “mare’s leg,” he helped families settle feuds, freed unjustly sentenced men and located missing people.

Tough Talk: “You’re good to me dead or alive, so you can make up your own mind how it’s going to be.” — Randall, who always got his man.

Fun Fact: Desperate to leave the show and star in The Magnificent Seven, McQueen faked a car crash, forcing a delay in the production of the series and allowing him to shoot the film.

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Wild West- Heroes & Villains

November 2022

Celebrates the unique sense of justice, compassion and adventure in the Old West as seen on TV and in the movies

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