Sunday, May 27, 2018

In Death Westerns Hero Clint Walker Provides Source of Reflection on American Heritage

It wouldn’t surprise me if you missed his obituary, but Clint Walker died last Monday. He was 90 (

Walker held a special place in the Forseter household from the mid-1950s to early-1960s. Tall, rugged, Adonis-shaped with a laconic, baritone voice, Walker portrayed Cheyenne Bodie in the ABC-TV series Cheyenne that aired Sunday nights (

It was among my mother’s favorite shows, not the least reason being her pleasure at ogling Walker, especially when he took off his shirt. In the small of his back Cheyenne had a scar, a divot shaped like an arrowhead.  (She also favored William Hopper who played private detective Paul Drake on the CBS-TV series Perry Mason. Hopper never took his shirt off). 

Perhaps it was a reflection of the era, but westerns made up a considerable volume of the television fare enjoyed by our family more than six decades ago. A quick list of the prime time oaters we watched included Maverick (we preferred the episodes featuring James Garner as Bret Maverick over those with Jack Kelly (Bart) or Roger Moore (Beau), The Rebel, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and Wagon Train. I never knew why, but we mostly resisted tuning into Sugarfoot, Bonanza, and Rawhide, the series that launched Clint Eastwood’s career. 

My father was a big fan of westerns. There were, of course, westerns targeted at children that I watched without him: Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Broken Arrow, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Broken Arrow, Sky King (a “modern” western—the hero piloted a twin-engine Cessna instead of riding a horse around Arizona territory), and, my personal favorite, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, because its main human character was a boy just a few years my elder. 

I cannot remember any episode but one, wherein the young orphan Rusty is saved from a deadly buffalo stampede by the appearance on a hill of a mystical white buffalo that caused the herd to stop its charge, but I often called out, “Yo, Rinny,” as Rusty did at least once each show to get his faithful German shepherd dog to spring into action to save the day (to be honest, I always said “Yo, Rinty,” but in researching this blog I listened to part of the first episode and heard Rusty say, “Rinny.” Ah, well, so my memory is not infallible).

These westerns were small morality plays. Aside from life lessons, the mini horse operas imparted a bit of historical context to the saga of America. Don’t dwell on their accuracy. They were no more true to facts than most Hollywood biopics or history-based films. 

Yet, they provided background to our collective national experience, with one glaring omission—rarely, if at all, did they portray the lives and contributions of Black Americans, or those of Mexican and Asian heritage, in exploring, taming and settling the Old West, unless they were shown in servile positions (Hey Boy in Have Gun Will Travel is an example). Their more meaningful achievements were not part of small screen fare ( 

Star Trek, Star Wars and their ilk, along with superhero movies that defy credulity, have replaced westerns as the genres beloved by juveniles. They’re OK, if you like computer aided graphics, but I wonder how much the younger generation has lost identification with the American experience. Has the Millennium Falcon’s speedy Kessel run replaced the cumbersome Conestoga wagon trudge along the Oregon Trail as the touchstone for intrepid treks? 

Westerns were not alone in glossing over the full reality of our multi-cultural history. Textbooks I used in elementary and high school neglected non white contributors. I cannot say what today’s textbooks include, but if the behavior of our president and many of his supporters is any indication, I would guess we still do not count Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Chinese and numerous other immigrant nationalities among the heroes and shapers of America.