In the pioneer days of TV Westerns, men were men, directors were directors, and actors stayed on their own damn side of the camera. At the time, that was good enough for Clint Eastwood, who acted his way out of Rawhide (1959-66) to wrangle an eventual Academy Award for directing. Many soon-to-be-famous moviemakers also moseyed down that TV-Western trail as directors, though none of them ever lassoed an Oscar. One of the closest contenders was Robert Altman for The Player-losing out to Eastwood for Unforgiven. Now renowned as a cinematic maverick, Altman cut his directorial teeth in the late ’50s and early ’60s on the likes of The Rifleman, Bonanza, and, of course, Maverick. And though he directed such non- Western shows as Combat!, Altman clearly was at home on the range. So was Sam Peckinpah, whose 1969 big-screen Western, The Wild Bunch, upgraded the reality quotient of a traditionally gore-free genre. A decade before, he had scripted the pilot and many early episodes of The Rifleman, directed later ones, and written more than 10 episodes of Gunsmoke. Arthur Hiller (Love Story, Silver Streak) and Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon) likewise shot The Rifleman. What was it about TV Westerns that spawned more name directors than anything since the golden age of live-TV drama? Partly, it was that Westerns were often shot on location; unpredictable weather and relative remoteness tested a young filmmaker’s mettle. Moreover, most old TV shows simply were Westerns-26 series a week at their height in 1959. Even an Eastwood knew to go West.
Posted July 9 1993 — 12:00 AM EDT
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