CHEYENNE

U.S. Western

Cheyenne 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.

Early network 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.

Cheyenne 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 plot.

With Walker 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."


Cheyenne

When 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 identical clone.

Warner 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.

By 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."

-Christopher Anderson

CAST

Cheyenne Bodie...................................... Clint Walker Toothy Thompson ......................................Jack Elam

PRODUCERS
William T. Orr, Roy Huggins, Arthur Silver, Harry Foster

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 107 Episodes

ABC
September 1955-September 1959.... Tuesday 7:30-8:30 September 1959-December 1962...... Monday 7:30-8:30 April 1963-September 1963................. Friday 7:30-8:30

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Jackson, Ronald. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. Seacaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1994.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot The Sheriff: The Rise And Fall Of The Television Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.

West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1987.

Woolley, 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.

Yoggy, Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

 

See also Warner Brothers Presents; Westerns