Time Before Now – September 1955 – The popular 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower, held the country’s first televised Presidential press conference. Soprano Marian Anderson made her debut with New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Verde’s “The Masked Ball,” making history as the first Black singer to star at the Met Dr. Jonas Salk made medical history with the world’s first polio vaccine. On the Waterfront” won the Best Picture Oscar and movie bad boy, Marlon Brando, won in a starring role. “Soon-to-be-Royal, Grace Kelly won the Oscar for “The Country Girl” and TV-royalty in the making, Johnny Carson, debuted with is own show on CBS.
September 20, 1955
On this day TV, Westerns reached a milestone with the premier of the first hour-long series, ABC’s “Cheyenne.”
Starring Clint Walker, (left) it produced a flurry of firsts for the industry: first 60-minute series to last more than a single season, running until 1963; first TV series produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers) and that studio’s first big TV hit in a string of winners.
Despite its long run, Cheyenne produced only 108 black and white episodes, alternating with other dramas. It shared a Tuesday 7:30 Eastern time slot with two other dramas during the first year. Its companions included “King’s Row” based on the 1942 Warner Brothers movie starring Ronald Reagan and “Casablanca,” which used the same set as the famous Bogart movie.
Ronald Reagan as Drake McHugh in “King’s Row”
As its star, Walker gets credit for setting fire to the TV western craze in the 1950s. He took his shirt off a lot (right) and was popular with female fans.
Born with a twin sister Neoma, in Illinois, he was the contemporary archetype of his itinerant Cheyenne Bodie character who wanders the West. He quit high school at 16, joined the Merchant Marines at 17, worked in the Texas oil patch, on a Mississippi river boat, as a golf caddy and carnival roustabout before landing in southern California as a not-so-inconspicious undercover operative for a private detective agency.
His rugged good looks and towering physique caught the attention of Hollywood where he was cast as the Captain of the Guard in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film, “The Ten Commandments.” Warner Brothers quickly snatched him up, cast him as the lead in the new series and put him under a repressive contract that nearly cost them the star of their new mega-hit.
Finding the 6 foot 6 inch Walker a equine co-star created a problem, however. He was eventually paired with Brandy, a blaze faced sorrel standing 16 hands high, horse parlance for 5 feet 4 inches at the shoulder. (Right) Walker used Brandy in Warner Brothers movies, as well.
By 1957 Walker had become dissatisfied not able to appear in movie and unhappy with splitting all his public appearance fees with the studio. After protracted talks, Walker walked.
In a hasty work-around, the studio accidently created another hit, casting young beefcake actor and actual Texan, Ty Hardin, born Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr. as Bronco Layne. (Right) When Warner Brothers caved to Walker’s demands, he returned to the show for the remainder of its run, alternating weeks with “Bronco” until 1962.
After the series ended, Walker starred in the well-received 1966 film “Night of the Grizzly,” and had a supporting role in the 1967 WWII classic, “The Dirty Dozen.” He reprised his Bodie role in a 1991 made-for-TV-movie “The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw.”
Walker nearly didn’t survive much beyond his Bodie character, however, when a 1971 freak accident nearly killed him. Pierced in the heart with a ski pole he was, in fact, pronounced dead before an alert surgeon saved his life.
In an unexpected endeavor, Walker and writer Kirby Jonas spent two years collaborating on a story line developed by the actor. The pair published the 2003 novel , “Yaqui Gold.” (Right) Jonas, a longtime “Cheyenne” fan has authored more than two dozen “G” rated Westerns.
After nearly four decades in film and television, Walker gracefully retired, making one of his last appearance in 2012 at the Memphis Film Festival’s TV western reunion. He died of congestive heart failure on May 21, 2018, at the age of 90.
Walker was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers in 2004, having received the organization’s Golden Boot Award in 1997. In addition, the actor was honored with a star on the Texas Trail of Fame at the Fort Worth Stockyards.(Right)
By contrast, Bronco Layne’s Ty Hardin, did not go quietly following his show’s cancellation. After several semi-forgettable parts in Hollywood, he starred in a number of spaghetti westerns before landing in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service
A self-styled evangelist, his tax problems reportedly led to his founding the archly anti-Semitic Arizona Patriots. Railing against Catholics as “impure Christians,” his antics finally led to FBI and ATF probes. The Patriots headquarters were raided in 1987 and a cache of illegal weapons, ammunition and Aryan Nation literature were seized. One of his last public sightings was at a 2005 film festival in Charlotte, South Carolina. He died on August 3, 2017, aged 87.
The Hall of Great Western Performers is part of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum,WE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The hall is dedicated to those who have provided outstanding career performances in movies, television, radio and theatre. In addition to Clint Walker, it includes nearly 100 stars of stage and screen. Founded in 1955, the museum itself is one of the premier conservators of Western legend and lore.
Open 10 to 5, Monday through Saturday and noon to 5, Sunday . The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years. The Museum Grill, open Monday through Saturday, 11 to 2, serves up a variety of Southwestern-inspired and kid-friendly classics.
Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.75 for students with IDs, $5.75 for kids 6 to 12, kids under 5, free. Admission is $9.50 during special Elder Hours for seniors 62 and older, 9 to 10 mornings, Monday through Friday. For more information go to nationalcowboymuseum.org, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.
© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.