Westerns don't dominate the film and TV landscape the way they once did, but the actors who played in them cast long shadows and still retain a larger-than-life, almost legendary quality. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and their ilk seem to be hewn from granite, while villainous actors like Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef exude an inner darkness that's unsettling to this day.
As always, of course, when the cameras weren't rolling, they were flesh-and-blood individuals, with all the quirks, eccentricities, flaws, and virtues that implies. Here are some stories about Western stars that bring them off the silver screen and into the realm of the relatable.
- Photo: Lonesome Dove / CBS13,172 VOTES
Perhaps best known as consigliere Tom Hagen in the first two Godfather films, Robert Duvall has also done his share of Western work - notably in the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove and the 1983 country-music drama Tender Mercies.
Billy Bob Thornton acted with Robert Duvall in 1997's The Apostle, which Duvall also directed. Thornton told Paste magazine that he believed Duvall's skill as an actor came from his ability to observe regular people:
He’d rather hang out with some old farmer he meets - you know, out in the middle of nowhere - than he would another actor, I think. Celebrity doesn’t mean a lot to him. He’s much more into the characters of life, which always impressed me about him because I kinda feel the same way. I just love a good character.
That’s great for a writer, but that’s also great for an actor. The better your observational skills, the better an actor you’ll be. And Duvall has supreme observational skills.
- Photo: ABC22,019 VOTES
Before he blasted his way into viewers' hearts as rancher Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, Chuck Connors played pro baseball, briefly breaking into the major leagues and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Though he retired from baseball before launching his TV career, Connors hung on to his skills. Actor Johnny Crawford, who portrayed Lucas McCain's son Mark, recalled:
I was into baseball, and when we started doing the series, I would bring a baseball bat, my glove, and a ball, and try to get a game going during lunch. But [Chuck] always insisted on being the first one up at bat, and we couldn't find the ball afterwards, so I got tired of that.
- Photo: The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters / ABC
A child actor, Kurt Russell appeared in the early-'60s Western TV series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. The show ran for a single season; Charles Bronson, who had already earned fame for his role in The Magnificent Seven, came on board for the second half of that season.
Bronson's reputation as a difficult actor to work with preceded him onto the McPheeters set. Speaking to Jimmy Kimmel, Kurt Russell recalled how he was able to break the ice with this intimidating character:
I heard it was his birthday... So I think I got him a remote-controlled airplane. And I came to the set with it and I gave it to him, and he just kinda looked at me and then he looked at the ground and then he walked away...
[A] few minutes later, the assistant director said, "Charlie wants to see you in his room." So I knocked on the door and he opened the door and he looked at me... [He] said, "Uh, nobody ever really got me a present before for my birthday"...
Later on, when it was my birthday... he knew that I liked skateboarding, and he got me these fantastic skateboards for himself and myself for my birthday. And he started skateboarding...
When a studio employee told Russell he would not be able to skateboard on the lot anymore, Bronson set things straight. Russell recalled:
We went up to, I think it was the head of the studio, and we just walked by the secretary, and just walked in, and he said, "Hi, we’re gonna be skateboarding around the lot."
- Photo: Rio Grande / Republic Pictures44,340 VOTES
John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara starred together in five films, including 1950's Rio Grande and 1952's The Quiet Man. Their professional partnership was grounded in real respect and affection, such that some people have alleged they were a couple off-screen.
In any case, the mutual regard is evident in a television interview they gave together, in which they traded quips about the rigors of making Westerns. Wayne insisted that no matter what the shoot put her through, O'Hara couldn't be made unattractive:
There's no way to make her not beautiful - we tried that. Jack Ford tried to make her unattractive in a couple of scenes and it was impossible.
When O'Hara asked, "When?" Wayne replied, "In The Quiet Man. When he had you running across, through the storm, do you remember? You looked nothing but beautiful."
- Photo: Cimarron / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Glenn Ford, who starred in numerous Western films like 3:10 to Yuma, Cimarron, and The Fastest Gun Alive, had some real-life cowboy skills to go along with his acting chops. According to his son Peter, "He could draw and shoot in three-tenths of a second."
Paul Peterson, who co-starred with Ford in 1967's A Time for Killing, concurred, describing Ford's "easy manner when they passed out the weapons and checked out the actors who would handle them. No fuss, no hysterics, just a man who knew and appreciated weaponry.”
Ford had equestrian skills to match. Peterson recalled watching Ford ride on the day they were to begin location shooting in Utah:
He had that horse moving around like a dancer, backing up, tracing sideways, and ever alert. I said something like, "That's a great horse," and Glenn replied, "His name is Tops... Arizona's top cutting horse. Proud to say I own him." Glenn Ford was no rookie.
- Photo: No Man's Gold / Fox Film Corporation61,528 VOTES
Michael D. Moore was a prolific director, assistant director, and second unit director on numerous films from The Ten Commandments to the Indiana Jones trilogy. But before that, under the stage name "Micky Moore," he was also a child actor. As a boy, he acted opposite Tom Mix, one of the first true Western stars, in 1926's No Man's Gold.
Moore recounted the experience in his memoir My Magic Carpet of Films, and in particular the stunts that by modern standards would be seen as downright reckless. For one scene, Mix's character was supposed to shoot off the boot heel of a retreating villain in order to make him fall down. According to Moore:
While this is usually done with special effects, in this case Tom decided to actually shoot the heel off the man's boot. Being the "boss man," he got his way. Everything was lined up. The cameras rolled. Bang! The heel came off the boot. A perfect shot!