America’s western films live on. We’re used to huge Hollywood blockbusters with mega special effects these days, but nothing beats the charm and drama of a full-on American country & western. It just goes to show that you don’t need CGI to make a film attention grabbing, and some of the world’s biggest actor names to come out of this genre, it’s no wonder these films are still in demand.
Full on fist fights and shoot outs, bandits, cowboys, horses, train robberies and bank jobs, the list goes on. What could be better than one of Hollywood’s action heroes riding into the frame and allowing charisma to ooze from every pore? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson are some of the golden names from this era of film and even today’s youth know these days for their talent. Let’s check out some America’s golden era actors and relive their talent one more time.
Even for those who’ve never watched a western in their lives, John Wayne is synonymous with this film genre. This man is a household name and rightly so! Some of the best westerns have featured this iconic actor.
Wayne’s big break came in Stagecoach, released in 1939 and from there, he would go on to star in more than 140 films in the same genre, with big names like True Grit and Red River to add to his resume. One of acting’s true greats!
Few American western heroes managed to cross over genres, but Gary Cooper did this and then some! Breaking into the acting scene in 1925, Cooper would star in top films until 1961, spanning several genres.
Despite his flexibility, it was westerns where Cooper earned his stripes and as one of the best western heroes around he charmed audiences worldwide. Man of the West and High Noon were two of his notable successes.
If John Wayne is a popular name, Clint Eastwood is without a doubt the most famous of them all. A living legend even today, Eastwood’s films are some of the most successful in the western genre. With his tough man exterior and charisma, his characters are of the highest quality.
You will know Eastwood from Rawhide, before moving onto movies, such as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and Coogan’s Bluff. The list goes on, and these films will go down in history.
Prior to James Stewart’s breakout career in a range of Hollywood westerns, he was a Brigadier General serving for the US Air Force Reserve. The tools he learned during his military career were put to good use, as he called upon his skills during his acting.
Staring in films such as Bend of The River, Broken Arrow, and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart became a huge success and is now the third greatest male lead of the era. Stewart was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy.
A hero of the western era, Randolph Scott went on to star in 60 films in the genre. Beginning his career in 1928, he acted for decades before calling it a day in 1968. His personality always shone through and his ‘tough guy’ persona added depth to his characters.
Abilene Town is one of his most notable movies and several more added him to the National Cowboy And Western Heritage Museum’s Western Performers’ Hall of Fame. His characters live on to this day and will go down in history.
Few western actors have the diversity and range that Robert Duvall had. With the ability to play a huge range of different characters perfectly, Duvall’s work has gone down in history, and rightly so.
Starring in True Grit, The Twilight Zone, Wild Horses, and Joe Kidd, Duvall’s best-loved characters will always be cowboys. He was a firm favourite in the western era and his performances were always credited for their grit and realness.
Few western stars earned their acting stripes on Broadway, but Henry Fonda was never one to shy away from a challenge. In 1935 he was treading the boards of Broadway, before being spotted and transferring to the big screen.
With starring roles in Once Upon a Time in The West, Jesse James and West was Won, Fonda was a much-loved western star and earned the American Film Institute’s title of 6th Greatest Male Star of All Times. Now, that’s a title.
One of the most recognisable stars in Hollywood’s western era is Burt Lancaster. Playing some of the tough guy roles fans loved, he starred in countless films such as The Unforgiven, Vengeance Valley and The Professionals to name just a few.
Never one to leave anything behind, Lancaster became known for his all-encompassing performances. He also won the American Film Institute’s award for Great Male Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema. He will forever be known for his contribution to one of the greatest eras in American film.
In every film Charles Bronson starred in, he was a man seeking vengeance and loved a gun fight. His performances won him critical acclaim and some of the best scenes in the western era. With a tough guy exterior, this was an actor with depth.
Bronson starred in countless films, including Apache, The Magnificent Seven, and Once Upon a Time in The West, alongside some of the golden era’s biggest stars. He more than matched them and became iconic in his own right.
As the popularity of the western era grew, it crossed over from the big screen to TV. It was during this time James Arness earned his popularity with a fantastic performance in the ever-popular Gunsmoke.
Playing Matt Dillon, Arness became a western household name thanks to this role and whilst he did appear on the big screen several times, his role as the rogue Marshall will always be what he is dearly remembered for.
Despite his youthful good looks, Audie Murphy became one of the golden era’s most prevalent actors. He starred in more than 40 films throughout his career, including Sierra and The Unforgiven, to name just two of his popular appearances.
Outside of his acting career, Murphy was also awarded the Medal of Honour at the age of 19, as well as countless other medals for his military bravery. His Medal of Honour was awarded for forcing a German soldier’s retreat single-handedly during World War II.
Many of the western era actors were soldiers before earning their acting stripes and James Garner fits that description. Having fought in the Korean War, Garner used his skills and transferred them onto the big screen as a cowboy.
One of the stars of The Castaway Cowboy, and Duel at Diablo to name just two, Garner really took the western world by surprise when he stared in Maverick in 1950. Playing Bret Maverick, Garner will always be remembered for this one particular starring role.
Some actors just have ‘it’ and that’s exactly what Lee Marvin had! A natural on the western screen, he starred in several smaller roles before hitting the serious big time just before the time came for him to hang up his acting boots.
With smaller roles in Hangman’s Knot and Bad Day at Black Rock, it was Cat Ballou that pushed Marvin into the big time, alongside Jane Fonda. It was this movie which clinched his Best Actor Award at the Oscars.
Whilst Steve McQueen was certainly a hugely talented actor, he gained a reputation as being a little “difficult” to work with! He often put forth his opinions with directors but this was allowed considering his talent. McQueen became known as the King of Cool.
Earning some of the biggest pay packets on the western circuit, McQueen’s performances were nothing short of majestic, with roles in The Magnificent Seven and Tales of Well Fargo to name just two notable films.
One look at the bad guys played by Lee Van Cleef and you believed his role completely. He simply had a knack of drawing in the audience without any question. His skills were second to none and he was a firm favourite on the western circuit.
Perhaps best for his roles in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, High Noon, and A Few Dollars More, Lee Can Cleef may have been the constant bad guy but he played a very good one every single time.
With his all-American good looks, Chuck Connors was actually a professional sportsman before turning his attention to the western big screen. Playing both basketball and baseball, this is an actor who nearly never made it. Thankfully he did, as we would have been robbed of his fantastic performances.
A cowboy in reality as well as on screen, Connors had a huge role in Rifleman, a western TV show that was extremely popular at the time. He then crossed over to the big screen in Once Upon a Time in Texas, and the Big Country.
Throughout a career that spanned 70 movies, Jack Elam was often cast as a villain, a role he played to perfection. Such was his acting talent, he was added to the Hall of Great Western Performers, alongside other western greats.
In an acting career that included both TV roles and films, Elam was seen in Once Upon a Time in The West and Far Country, alongside Tales of Wells Fargo and the ever-popular Rifleman. The list goes on and with 70 movies to watch, this is one actor you’ll never be bored of!
Many of the western era’s best actors were cowboys in real life and that’s a title that certainly extends to Ben Johnson. A cowboy in real life and one on the big screen, Johnson was also a stuntman, pushing himself to the limit for his art.
Johnson was also a world champion on rodeo before going on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Last Picture Show. That’s a lot of awards! Initially, Johnson was only going to be a stuntman and extra, but his natural talent shone through and he forced his way onto the big screen for real.
Sam Elliott’s ancestors were true cowboys, which means a step towards the western circuit was a natural progression for the actor. Known for his moustache, Elliott starred in several smaller roles before breaking through into a major role towards the end of his career.
As the second card player in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Elliott’s stock in the film world began to grow and he went to star in films as the lead, notably I Will Fight No More Forever and Tombstone.
Many actors have to start at the bottom and work their way up, and that was the case for Walter Brennan. Sure in his talent and never one to give up, he took almost 100 smaller roles before he earned his own deserved recognition.
Brennan’s breakout role came in The Calgary before going on to star in the Wedding Night, next to Gary Cooper. He won three Oscars for his talents. It just goes to show that sometimes a little patience and perseverance pays off.
A hugely flexible actor, Glenn Ford was known for his versatility. He played good guys, heroes, bad guys and everything in-between and was one of the most successful western actors of his time. This allowed him to be cast in some of the biggest films of the golden era.
Starring in countless big screen movies, Ford’s biggest roles came in the Fastest Gun Alive, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Violent Man. He starred next to major actors, matching them stride for stride and more than joining their club.
Perhaps the surname Mix is an indication of how mixed his career was! First, he took part in the Spanish-American war but went AWOL, took a job as a bartender, and then trained to be a horseman. It was this final role which allowed him to take a natural step into the western acting world.
Tom Mix starred in more than 300 films over the course of his career, which didn’t begin until the age of 30. However, many of his films were lost, as they were made in the silent era, a shame for fans of his acting. Mix was inducted into the National Cowboy And Western Heritage Museum for his work.
With starring roles in more than 100 top western films, Roy Rogers is one of the most iconic actors of his time. Such was his popularity that he even had his own show, The Roy Rogers Show!
Rogers broke into the entertainment world as a musician initially but his career took a turn as he played the role of a singing cowboy during 1935. This pushed his talent further and from there, the roles kept flying in. He also worked alongside animals too, making him one of the first actors of his time to do so.
Many cowboy characters of the time sang, but Gene Autry was the original singing cowboy. You may know his voice from many iconic radio songs, including the Christmas song, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer! His cowboy singing act gained him notoriety and many fans.
It wasn’t long before Autry received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – five to be exact! Many fans head there today to check out his stars and listen to his songs even now. It just goes to show that you don’t need to star in countless movies to be recognised as a cowboy of the era.
Many actors start out in western films and stay in them, whilst others try other things and find themselves pulled towards the western genre. That was the case for Joel McCrea, who earned his acting stripes on Sullivan’s Travel and Foreign Correspondent.
However, during an interview in 1978, McCrea talked about how much he loved western films and that he felt particularly pulled towards starring in them. Once he pulled on the cowboy boots and jumped on a horse, the whole thing was natural to McCrea, and it seems like westerns truly are in the blood.
In many roles, Gabby Hayes played grumpy old men with long beards, but it’s a role he played very well indeed! Hayes never truly managed to make it and remain at the top of the western world rankings but he had a long career in less well-known movies.
After playing the sidekick of Hopalong Cassidy, Hayes also played alongside the iconic John Wayne in several movies too. His persistence and charm won him two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Whilst talking about the best actors of the western era, we should mention the directors. John Ford is up there with the best and has won more Best Director Oscars than anyone else. Director of The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley to name just a few, he is one of the most accomplished directors in history.
John Ford has worked with some of the most acclaimed actors in the western niche, and his achievements have outshined every single one of them. Known for his talent at long shots and location filming, this is a director that history will never forget.
Slim Pickens was originally an expert in rodeo and as a natural cowboy he loved everything western. However as World War II took hold, he was recruited by the US Army for duty. Once the war was over, Pickens landed a job on a radio station, but it was entirely by accident.
Upon being unleashed on the radio, albeit by mistake, Pickens managed to break into the entertainment world, before finally landing acting roles in western films. His credits include The Cowboys, Rocky Mountain, and Stagecoach.
As western programmes began to take over the small screen and colour TV took hold, more actors were able to break into the genre. This is how Alan Ladd found his big break. Starring as Shane in a large movie, Ladd downscaled to play TV roles from that point on, earning his acting credits.
With TV shows such as Whispering South, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia, and This Gun For Hire, Ladd dominated the small screen’s western shows and became a literal household name for his acting skills and easy charm.
Not all western actors remained loyal to their cowboy roots completely and that’s the case for Andy Devine. A talented actor, Devine was also a great comedian who often starred in comedy-based roles too. His main role can as Cookie, starring alongside Roy Rogers.
Starring in many TV shows, including Wild Bill Hickok, Devine also moved into radio and played a character on the Jack Benny Show. He then moved into voice acting, showing that versatility certainly gives you longevity in the acting world.
Robert Livingston is without a doubt one of the most impressive actors of his time and starred in countless films and TV shows. He starred in more than 176 films from 1921 until 1975 when he decided to hang up his acting boots. His most famous role was in Three Mesquiteers.
Later, he played The Lone Ranger, Zorro, and many more creating some of the most iconic characters throughout his reign. As perhaps one of the lesser known western actors, Livingston has a very long resume to show off his acting stock.
With his rugged good looks and charm, James Drury quickly became a household name due to his long-running part in The Virginian. During the series he played a foreman as a main character and stayed in the programme for the full nine season.
Moving over from the small screen to the big screen, Drury also starred in several small western films, yet it was his TV role that won him the most notoriety. He is perhaps one of the most famous western stars with a long TV career to boast about.
Chill Wills was born Theordore Childress Wills, on one of the hottest days on record, in 1902. His name makes reference to that fact, belying his comedic talent. Despite his love of comedy, he went on to have a high quality and prolific acting career in the western film world.
Acting for several decades, Wills played alongside John Wayne several times, and also had sizeable roles in The Alamo and McLintock. He then moved into TV, where he enjoyed success on Gunsmoke and Frontier Circus, to name just two.
Tom Tyler has a long and varied resume that is certainly impressive. With his good looks and acting talent, Tyler starred in several Hollywood westerns, including Born to Battle, Santa Fe Bound, and Mystery Ranch. Although mostly concentrating on B movies, he was successful in obtaining a role in ever-popular Stagecoach.
Following his movie success, Tyler moved into TV shows and moved away from westerns to a certain degree. Flexing his acting muscles he played Captain Marvel to perfection and also The Phantom from the famous comic books.
Dan Blocker is best known for his portrayal of Eric Cartwright in the TV show Bonanza. Having played this role for 13 years, Blocker was a staple on the show until he died, starring in more than 400 episodes.
Prior to his role in Bonanza, blocker starred in a few western movies, albeit in small parts. He is present in Wagon Train, Rifleman, and Cheyenne. However, it is without a doubt his Bonanza part that earned him notoriety in the western acting world.