The writer and essayist Gerald Early once asserted that “two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.”
That’s a great soundbite, and little doubt that Early—a smart, insightful man—has given this notion a lot of thought. But one could make the case, of course, that hip-hop should probably be added to that list, and there are those among us who might strenuously argue for other uniquely American contributions to global culture. The hot dog, for example. Or the ShamWow.
But one classic, identifiably, certifiably American creation that deserves to at least be in the conversation is the Western.
From the earliest days of film (The Great Train Robbery was made in 1903) to director John Ford’s genre-defining classics of the ’30s and ’40s to “revisionist” masterpieces like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Westerns have thrilled, entertained and—with their familiar, mythic scope and often easily digested moral message—in a sense comforted countless millions.
The genre on the small screen, meanwhile, has enjoyed similar success and longevity. While we’ve never again seen anything like the Golden Age of the television Western, when in the mid-1950s and 1960s it sometimes felt like there was nothing on TV except gunfighters, cattle rustlers and bar maids with hearts of gold, more recent shows like Deadwood, Justified and Hell of Wheels illustrate just how potent, and popular, the recipe remains.
In tribute, then, to the television Western, and in celebration of two of the greatest shows of them all, Bonanza and Gunsmoke—both of which first aired in the second week of September, the latter in 1955, the former in 1959—LIFE.com presents photos made behind the scenes on a number of TV Westerns. Most of the pictures here were first published in an article titled “TV Goes Wild Over Westerns” in the October 1957 issue of LIFE—an article that made plain the magazine’s barely contained astonishment at the rise and rise of the seemingly inexhaustible genre:
Television this fall started off with a bang-bang and by this week the bangs had exploded into a huge boom in westerns. Everywhere on TV, along with the sound of six-shooters, comes the noise of bottles breaking on bars, of poker tables crashing to the floor, of fists smashing into faces and of hooves clattering over the plans. A full third of all the nighttime TV network ours is filled with westerns, 12 of them popular holdovers from last year plus 11 rootin’ tootin’ newcomers.
Now there are so many horse opera on the screen that even TV does not seem to be taking them too seriously, indulging on occasion in good-humored hokum. . . . The fashion has reached such proportions that right now a Los Angeles family with unlimited leisure, four TV sets and an insatiable appetite for gunplay could tune in on 64 hours of westerns per week.
Only one question now remains. Which cable channel—premium or otherwise—is going to step up and broadcast “all Westerns, all the time” to an audience that’s dying for classic horse operas? We’re looking at you, TBS. . . .