I now give you my choices for top five westerns of the 50s-60s. Since each western also appeared in comics, a comic cover will accompany each.
# 5 - Sugarfoot - I'm still not sure what a sugarfoot is, but I think it's like a tenderfoot with a sweet disposition. This was the character Will Hutchins played in this classic Warner Brothers series. Tom Brewster was a drifter studying law from the mail order books in his saddlebags (which is where his gun-belt stayed most of the time as well). This story about an experienced cowboy who was also a lawyer wannabe made for some very unique plots. About six issues of the comic were published as a part of Dell's Four Color series.
# 4 - Big Valley- This series was the big break that made Lee Majors and Linda Evans TV stars. Ahead of its time, this series dealt with more mature issues as the illegitimate Barkley son returns to collect his share of the inheritance. Older brother, Jarrod (Richard Long) is a lawyer and middle brother, Nick (Peter Breck) is the hot tempered ranch boss. It didn't hurt that this series featured veteran actress, Barbara Stanwyck as matriarch Victoria. Dell published six issues of the comic series.
# 3 - Gunsmoke - The longest running Western series in history, Gunsmoke stayed in prime time for 20 years (1955-1975), making James Arness the only actor to play the same character in a single series for two decades. Our family is currently making our way through the first season of this series which is now being released in official DVD season sets. The first three seasons are already out. The first 27 issues of the comic series were published by Dell beginning in 1957 as a part of the Four Color series. In 1969-70, six issues of Gunsmoke were published by Gold Key.
# 2 - Bonanza- On DVD, finally! The first two seasons of this series recently came out on DVD. Until now VHS tapes and DVDs of public domain episodes were released, but often minus the original theme music. The new sets are "official" and even include original promo material, photo stills, and other special features. Most of these episodes have never before been released on video. The series was about the ranch family of patriarch Ben Cartwright, a three time widower with a grown son by each wife.
The chemistry of the original cast was excellent, but midway through, Pernell Roberts (eldest brother, Adam) left the show and Dan Blocker (Hoss) died just prior to the final season. The only original cast members left were Lorne Greene (Ben) and Michael Landon (Little Joe), so things just weren't the same by series end. The writing had also deteriorated. But in its heyday Bonanza was one of the best series ever. The first few seasons are exceptional and you can see how the Cartwright clan evolved and developed over time. A few issues of Bonanza were published as a part of Dell's Four Color series, followed by 37 issues published by Gold Key.
# 1 - Maverick - What can be said that I haven't already mentioned in my previous Maverick post? While I'm a fan of traditional westerns, this one was anything but traditional. Cerebral plots and comedic episodes were common. Some episodes didn't even seem like westerns, with stories in settings like Louisiana, Mexico, on riverboats, and even in South America. James Garner was the original Maverick, but Jack Kelly, who played Brother Bart, was also very talented and likable.
The series was about two gamblers traveling the west and occasionally crossing paths. The first three seasons, featuring Garner, were the absolute best. The fourth season with Roger Moore as Beau and Robert Colbert as Brent were okay, but not as good. I do like the Roger Moore episode, Bolt from the Blue which guest stars Will Hutchins (as Sugarfoot?).
For the fifth season Bart went solo, explaining why there are more episodes with him. One redeeming thing about this season was the recurring role of Peter Breck (pre-Big Valley) as Doc Holiday. My favorite fifth season episode is the hilarious Marshall Maverick with Jack Kelly and Peter Breck.
What makes this my favorite western is the stories and the acting of Garner and Kelly. Most of the Warner Brothers stable of westerns (including Maverick, Cheyenne, Colt 45, Sugarfoot, Bronco, and Lawman) have not made it to DVD. Exceptions include the first season of Cheyenne which is available and only three episodes of Maverick. These are all rare or nonexistent in syndication as well making the need for DVD collections even greater. But Maverick is available to Netflix members on streaming video.