was the first successful television series to be produced by the
motion picture studio, Warner Brothers. Originally one of the three
rotating series in the studio's showcase series, Warner Brothers
Presents, Cheyenne emerged as the program's breakout hit and
helped to fuel ABC's ratings ascent during the mid-1950s. ABC had
fewer national affiliates as CBS and NBC, but in markets with affiliates
of all three networks, Cheyenne immediately entered the top
ten; by 1957, it had become the number one program in those markets.
Although clearly successful, Cheyenne never stood alone as
a weekly series, but alternated bi-weekly with other Warner Brothers
series: Casablanca and King's Row in Warner Brothers
Presents (1955-56), Conflict (1956-57), and two spin-off
series, Sugarfoot (1957-61) and Bronco (1958-62).
Cheyenne's eight-year run produced only 107 episodes, an
average of thirteen per season.
television was staked out by refugees from Hollywood's B-western
backlots who salvaged their careers by appealing to a vast audience
of children. Cowboy stars Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, and William "Hopalong
Cassidy" Boyd made their fortunes in television with inexpensive
little westerns made from noisy gunfights and stock-footage Indian
raids. As television westerns were made to appeal to younger viewers,
the movie industry shifted in the opposite direction, toward "adult"
westerns in which the genre's familiar landscape became the setting
for psychological drama or mythic allegory, as in High Noon (1952)
and The Searchers (1956). With the 1955 premieres of Cheyenne,
Gunsmoke (1955-75),and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
(1955-61), the networks attempted to import the "adult" western
into prime time by infusing the genre with more resonant characters
and psychological conflicts.
starred Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, a former frontier scout
who drifts through the old West, traveling without any particular
motivation from one adventure to another. Along the way he takes
a number of jobs, working on ranches or wagon trains, taking part
in cattle drives or protecting precious cargo. Sometimes he works
for the federal government; at other times he finds himself deputized
by local lawmen. Essentially, the producers of Cheyenne changed
the character's circumstances at will in order to insert him into
any imaginable conflict. Indeed, several Cheyenne episodes
were remakes of earlier Warner Brothers movies like To Have and
Have Not (1944) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre(1948)
with the character of Cheyenne Bodie simply inserted into the original
as a lone redeemer wandering from community to community, Cheyenne
had a thin, though extremely adaptable, premise for generating
episodic stories. With its virtually unrelated individual episodes,
this type of series bears many similarities to the anthology format.
In Cheyenne, each episode featured a new conflict involving
new characters, with only the recurring character of Cheyenne Bodie
to connect one episode with another. Each time Cheyenne enters a
new community, he either witnesses or provokes a new story in which
he can participate to varying degree--though he is the force of
moral order able to resolve any conflict. This structure is particularly
suited to the western's violent resolutions, since only one continuing
character must remain alive when the dust settles.
The series was
held together not so much by its premise as by its charismatic star,
Clint Walker, who rose from obscurity to become one of the icons
of the TV western. With his powerful physique and towering height,
Walker commanded the small screen through sheer presence; his performance
gained gravity simply from the way his body dominated the screen.
Walker's personal strength extended beyond the screen to his dealings
with Warner Brothers, which exercised tight control over its contract
performers. In battling the studio, Walker made Cheyenne
one of the more tempestuous productions in the history of television.
For the 1957-58
season ABC offered to purchase a full season of thirty-nine episodes
of Cheyenne, but Warner Brothers declined. Since each hour-long
episode took six working days for principle photography alone, the
studio couldn't supply a new episode each week. Because Walker appeared
in virtually every scene, it was also impossible to shoot more than
one episode at a time. Consequently, Warner Brothers developed a
second series, Sugarfoot, to alternate with Cheyenne.
In a gesture
that would characterize creativity at Warner Brothers, the studio
designed Sugarfoot as only a slight variation on the Cheyenne
formula. In Sugarfoot, Will Hutchins played Tom Brewster,
a kind-hearted young drifter who travels the West while studying
to become a lawyer. Toting a stack of law books and an aversion
to violence, he shares Cheyenne Bodie's penchant for meddling in
the affairs of others. But whereas Cheyenne usually dispatches conflicts
with firepower, Tom Brewster replaces gunplay with a gift for rhetoric--though
he knows how to handle a weapon when persuasion fails. The series
was more light-hearted than Cheyenne, but otherwise held
close to the formula of the heroic loner.
In May 1958
Clint Walker demanded to renegotiate his contract before returning
for another season. Walker had signed his first contract at Warner
Brothers in 1955 as a virtual unknown and had received an initial
salary of $175 per week, which had risen gradually to $1250 per
week. After the second season of Cheyenne, Warner Brothers
capitalized on Walker's rising popularity by casting him in a feature
film, Fort Dobbs (1958), and by releasing a musical album
on which he sang. But Walker was still merely a contract performer
who worked on the studio's terms. Walker timed his ultimatum carefully,
assuming that he had acquired some leverage once Cheyenne
finished the 1957-58 season as ABC's second-highest-rated series.
He requested more freedom from his iron-clad contract, particularly
the autonomy to decide which projects to pursue outside the series.
"Television is a vicious, tiring business," he informed the press,
"and all I'm asking is my fair share."
Warner Brothers refused to negotiate, Walker left the studio and
did not return for the entire 1958-59 season. After meeting with
ABC and advertisers, Warner Brothers decided to continue the Cheyenne
series without its star. In his place the studio simply substituted
a new charismatic drifter, a former Confederate captain named Bronco
Layne (Ty Hardin). Warner Brothers received some puzzled fan mail,
but the studio sustained an entire season without Walker--and finished
among the top twenty programs--by interspersing Bronco Layne episodes
with reruns of Walker episodes from previous seasons. If there was
a difference between episodes of Bronco and Cheyenne,
it was solely in the stars; otherwise, Bronco was a nearly
Brothers finally renegotiated Walker's contract after his boycott,
and Cheyenne resumed with its star for the 1959-60 season.
Bronco survived as a stand-alone series and alternated with
Sugarfoot for the season. During the following season, the
three shows alternated in The Cheyenne Show; occasionally
the characters would crossover into episodes of the other series.
the end, the actors were numbed by the repetition of the scripts
and by the dreary, taxing routine of production on series in which
one episode was virtually indistinguishable from another. Even after
returning from his holdout, Walker disliked working on Cheyenne
and complained to the press that he felt "like a caged animal" pacing
back and forth in a zoo. "A TV series is a dead-end street," he
lamented. "You work the same set, with the same actors, and with
the same limited budgets. Pretty soon you don't know which picture
you're in and you don't care." Will Hutchins admitted hoping that
Sugarfoot would be canceled. Its episodes, he complained,
"are pretty much the same after you've seen a handful. They're moneymakers
for the studio, the stations, and the actors, but there's a kind
of empty feeling when you're through."
Bodie...................................... Clint Walker Toothy
Thompson ......................................Jack Elam
William T. Orr, Roy Huggins, Arthur Silver, Harry Foster
HISTORY 107 Episodes
September 1955-September 1959.... Tuesday 7:30-8:30 September 1959-December
1962...... Monday 7:30-8:30 April 1963-September 1963.................
Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the
Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Ronald. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. Seacaucus,
New Jersey: Carol, 1994.
J. Fred. Who Shot The Sheriff: The Rise And Fall Of The Television
Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.
Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1987.
Lynn, Robert W. Malsbary, and Robert G. Strange, Jr. Warner Brothers
Television: Every Show of the Fifties and Sixties, Episode by Episode.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1985.
Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western
on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.
Brothers Presents; Westerns