The son of a Cherokee Nation family, Will Rogers would go down as one of the most enigmatic and beloved personalities of the early Twentieth century. Throughout his career, he would go on to make 71 movies, write over 4,000 newspaper columns, and become an international celebrity. He developed his famous persona as a cowboy while working on Broadway. His distinct Oklahoma accent helped define his performances and personality. While he made films of many different genres, his most beloved films were his Westerns, of which he made many.
Films to watch: State Fair (1933), In Old Kentucky (1935), Judge Priest (1934)
Appearing in over 90 films, Harry Carey Jr. carried on his father’s legacy as one of the great early actors of the Western genre. After doing a stint with the United States Navy during World War Two, Carey became one of the most recognizable character actors of the genre. He was a frequent collaborator with directors Howard Hawks and John Ford, both of whom helped pioneer the genre into the realms of high art. He also starred in 10 movies with his good friend and colleague John Wayne. He later transitioned into a very successful career in television.
Films to watch: 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959)
For the length of his considerable career, Randolph Scott distinguished himself as one of Hollywood’s top leading men and one of the cinema’s most iconic cowboys. Measuring in at 6 ft 2 in, he projected a persona of a “strong, silent” type that matched the rough and tough leading characters that he portrayed in his films. He starred in over 60 Westerns. While he worked with many of the genre’s greatest directors, including Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, and Sam Peckinpah, he is most well known for his seven collaborations with Budd Boetticher.
Films to watch: The Tall T (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), Comanche Station (1960), Ride the High Country (1962)
Not only is Gary Cooper one of the most iconic screen cowboys, he is also one of the greatest cinematic actors who ever lived. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor twice. The second time he won it for High Noon, widely considered to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made. His performance in this film reflected his infamous persona: quiet, understated, but incredibly intense. While he made his mark in several genres, to millions he will always be remembered as a quintessential cowboy.
Films to watch: The Virginian (1929), The Plainsman (1936), The Westerner (1940), High Noon (1952), Vera Cruz (1954), Man of the West (1958)
John Wayne, “The Duke,” will forever be remembered as the essential Hollywood cowboy. The man has become so ingrained into the cinematic consciousness that every performance in a Western film will eventually be compared to him. He starred in many of the greatest Westerns ever made. But he also played different kinds of cowboys: the white-hat wearing good guy, the anti-hero, and even the revisionist. More of a force of nature than an actual actor, Wayne will be lighting up theaters for centuries to come.
Films to watch: Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), Hondo (1953), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Comancheros (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), El Dorado (1967), True Grit (1969), Chisum (1970), Big Jake (1971), The Shootist (1976)
That’s right. Mr. Nice Guy himself was one of the most important cowboys in cinema history. While he had a massive career that included many of the most famous movies of all time, he was integral to the development of the Western. Most important were his collaborations with Anthony Mann where he helped develop the morally ambiguous anti-hero that would dominate the landscape of Western films for years to come.
Films to watch: Destry Rides Again (1939), Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Shootist (1976)
While Clint Eastwood was making waves with the Dollars Trilogy, Franco Nero was quietly building himself up as the patron saint of spaghetti westerns. He helped define the gritty, harsh, and mysterious persona that dominated the genre. He has since been imitated by countless other film actors in the genre that he helped invent.
Films to watch: Django (1966), Massacre Time (1966), Texas, Adios (1967), The Mercenary (1968), Companeros (1970), Keoma (1976)
While he got his start doing episodes of Bonanza, James Coburn made the transition to film in the late Fifties and early Sixties with great success. A strongly versatile actor, he would become defined by the cowboys that he played. He worked with many of the greatest directors of Westerns who ever lived and starred in some of the most iconic and beloved films of the genre.
Films to watch: Ride Lonesome (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Major Dundee (1965), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Voted the sixth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute, Henry Fonda left a staggering legacy of magnificent Westerns when he died. He was known for his traditional good-guy persona which helped define him as one of the definitive “good guy” cowboys. In many of his early Westerns, he displayed a kind of proto-method acting that helped solidify him as a revolutionary actor.
Films to watch: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), How the West Was Won (1962), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Clint Eastwood seems to have been born to make Westerns. After a six-year run on the television series Rawhide, Eastwood started a career that would literally change the face of the Western genre. His mysterious and violent anti-heroes perfectly captured the allure and mystique of the Old West. In his later years, he would perfect the art of the revisionist Western.
Films to watch: Dollars Trilogy, High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992)