They had distinctive faces and distinctive names. Names like Chill, Cactus, Denver and Dabbs. They were grizzled and gravel-voice — men you could believe lived in the Wild West. Sure, stars like Steve McQueen, Dennis Weaver and Clint Eastwood made for cool cowboys, but TV Westerns would be nothing without a cast of character actors.
The 1950s and 1960s were a good time to be an actor with equestrian skills. The television schedule was chockablock with Westerns. In 1959, there were 26 Westerns on the three major networks. That's a lot of saddles to fill. There were dozens and dozens of veteran performers and hopeful newcomers who popped up in these shows. Heck, Gunsmoke alone had to cast 635 episodes.
We could have made a massive list of character actors from that era. Instead, we picked 12 of our favorite. You can spot some of them on H&I!
Noah Beery, Jr.
The nephew of Oscar winner Wallace Beery, Noah Jr. scored a couple of regular roles in his career, notable as a clown alongside young Micky Dolenz on Circus Boy and as James Garner's father on The Rockford Files. In between, he was seen in Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and more, typically a warm-hearted fellow.
Harry Carey, Jr.
Not to be confused with the famous Cubs announcer, this Harry Carey logged more than 90 Westerns in his resume. He was a particular favorite of Have Gun - Will Travel, which used him in 12 episodes. He grew up on a ranch as a child, earning the nickname "Dobe" for his adobe-colored hair, and even learned to speak Navajo. No wonder he appeared so comfortable onscreen, playing everything from sheriff to nogoodnik.
Lean and rangy, Royal Dano showed remarkable range as an actor, playing everything on the spectrum between cowardly criminal and Abraham Lincoln. Walt Disney personally selected Dano to voice Honest Abe, and the actor is perhaps now best known for playing the great President. Still, he could be just a mesmerizing in a wicked role, too.
Due to his lazy left eye, which was the result of being stabbed in the face with a pencil as a child, Elam typically found himself typecast as an old coot or crazed criminal. But he was brilliant in those roles, equally adept at comedy and menace.
A member of the Sons of the Pioneers, a singing group that appeared in numerous Roy Rogers films, Shug worked in everything from Tom and Jerry cartoons (as the voice of Uncle Pecos) to The Dukes of Hazzard. He shows up a handful of times on Gunsmoke as Obie, a well-dressed barkeep at the Oasis Saloon and occasional boxing referee.
Fix is best remembered as Marshal Micah Torrance in 150 episodes of The Rifleman. He also has a small part in Star Trek lore as the first medical man seen aboard the Starship Enterprise, as he portrayed Dr. Mark Piper in the series' second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," before Bones joined the crew. Elsewhere, he was District Attorney Hale on Perry Mason, Thad's dad on Gunsmoke, Commander Kronus on Battlestar Galactica, and a bit player on seemingly every other Western.
The first person ever saved by Superman on Adventures of Superman, Greer most often appeared on Gunsmoke, playing shopkeeper Wilbur Jonas, the man who supplied Miss Kitty with her wonderful wardrobe. He frequently played a minister, too. In fact, he had the honor of overseeing the marriages of both Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mike and Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch. Late in his career, Greer playing the old version of Tom Hanks' character in The Green Mile.
I. Stanford Jolley
Though his roots were in vaudeville, Jolley found his calling in countless Westerns. With his long face, sunken eyes and pencil-thin mustache, the actor could play both an imposing villain or authority figure.
Cousin to actors Glenn Strange and Rex Allen, Cactus Mack had his roots in the Arizona musical scene. He can be seen in a whopping 48 episodes of Gunsmoke, though mostly in the background, silently sipping a drink or standing in a crowd. However, in his final appearance on the show, he at last got a meaty part, playing an old man simply named "Pa" in season seven's "Marry Me." His high and raspy voice added even more character to the role. Too bad he couldn't land more speaking roles. Likewise, he went uncredited on many other Westerns. But with a perfect name like Cactus Mack, he deserves a salute.
In Cool Hand Luke, Martin delivered one of cinema's immortal lines, declaring, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." A former swimming and diving champ, he moved to Hollywood to first lend his expertise in the water. However, he soon found himself in front of the camera, in dusty towns like Dodge City. He played a mentally challenged man Cooter in a memorable early Gunsmoke, seen here, and remained a regular presence through the late-1970s.
Pyle, perhaps the second-most-famous television actor with "Denver" in his name after Bob Denver, should be familiar as both Briscoe Darling, Jr., from The Andy Griffith Show and Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard. But he was on just about every show with a horse, playing characters that exuded mountain wisdom.
Ironically named "Chill" because he was born on a scorching hot day, Wills also honed his skills as a musician, singing in the Avalon Boys. Later, he voiced the beloved Francis the Talking Mule in a series of hit films. His deep twang landed him onscreen, too, in Trackdown, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, and many other shows.