When television’s popularity exploded in the 1950s, westerns quickly became small-screen favorites, including the 5 best old western TV shows on our list. 1959 was a peak year for television westerns, with more than twenty-five prime-time shows. TV westerns are a sub-genre of the “Western,” a film and fiction genre of stories usually set in America’s Old West, western Canada, or Mexico during the late 1800s and the “Indian Wars” in North America. Although westerns eventually gave way to mysteries and crime drama, the old TV westerns continue to have a special place in the heart of American television viewers.
Based on factors such as historical significance and lasting appeal, here is our pick of the five best old-time western television shows.
- “Gunsmoke.” “Gunsmoke” tops our list–and almost everyone else’s list–as the best TV western. The show began as a radio drama in the early 1950s, and the CBS television series ran for an impressive twenty seasons, from 1955 to 1975. Listeners and viewers alike regard “Gunsmoke” as one of the best shows of any kind and any time. James Arness portrayed his Matt Dillon character for twenty consecutive years, as did Milburn Stone as “Doc” Adams. Today’s Dodge City, Kansas, has a Gunsmoke Street as a tribute to the TV show.
- “Bonanza.” “Bonanza” ran on NBC for fourteen seasons, from 1959 to 1973. It is second only to “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running television western series. Starring Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon, “Bonanza” continues to air in syndication. The old western chronicled the life and adventures of the Cartwright family headed by a widowed patriarch with three sons. “Bonanza” also featured one of the most memorable theme songs in television history.
- “Maverick.” “Maverick” was a comedy-western series that ran on ABC from 1957 to 1962. The popular TV show starred James Garner, Jack Kelly, Roger Moore, and Robert Colbert as poker-playing mavericks (brothers and cousins). In the late 1970s, a spin-off called “The New Maverick” aired, again starring James Garner. And “Young Maverick” ran for a short time in 1979. The comic television western gave us another memorable theme song, too.
- “Rawhide.” “Rawhide” aired on CBS for eight seasons, from 1959 to 1966. Starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood, this old TV show ranks fifth behind “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “The Virginian,” and “Wagon Train” as the longest-running TV western series. The typical “Rawhide” story involved members of a cattle drive from San Antonio, Texas, to Sedalia, Missouri, drawn to solve a problem they confronted along the way. Like the other TV westerns, “Rawhide” had another popular television theme song.
- “Have Gun–Will Travel.” The fifth show on our list of best old western TV shows is “Have Gun–Will Travel.” This western aired on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It was one of the few television shows to spawn a radio version. The show’s title was a popular catchphrase of the time. When used, it meant you were ready for anything. The series starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter who preferred to settle problems without violence, but he knew how to use a gun if needed.
“The Virginian,” “High Chaparral,” “The Rifleman,” and “The Big Valley” were a few other popular television westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. But the five TV shows in our list consistently rank at the top of the “best old westerns” list.