The Iconic Cowboy Stars Of Your Favorite Westerns Look Very Different Today

Audiences have been hitching their wagons to Westerns for almost as long as Hollywood has been making pictures. And the genre was so popular in the early 20th century that sheriffs, outlaws and cowboys dominated our screens. These rugged Old West tales made stars out of Clint Eastwood, Burton Gilliam, Johnny Crawford, Robert Redford, Kim Darby – and plenty more. But have you ever wondered what these actors got up to after they hung up their Stetsons? Well, pilgrims, you’ve come to the right saloon. Pour yourself a sarsaparilla and settle in.

20. Burton Gilliam

Director Mel Brooks reckons that 1974’s Blazing Saddles wouldn’t stand a chance of getting made these days. Yet the comedy was a big hit at the time – and even rode home with three Oscar nominations. The Western also made a star of Burton Gilliam, who played the movie’s black-hat-wearing bad guy.

Gilliam later popped up in everything from Back to the Future III to The A-Team. Nowadays, though, you might find the one-time fireman delighting fans by touring the country for Blazing Saddles’ special screenings. He’s got no plans to stop working, either. “I’m gonna live to be 100 years old,” Gilliam told the Houston Chronicle in 2019.

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19. Kim Darby

Kim Darby cut her teeth in classic TV Westerns such as Wagon Train, Gunsmoke and Bonanza. But she’s best remembered for her iconic turn opposite the one-and-only John Wayne in 1969’s True Grit. And even though the Duke apparently didn’t think much of Darby during the film’s shoot, the actor’s star-making performance earned her a BAFTA nod.

Darby’s branched out from Westerns now, and the one-time Mattie Ross has also taught others the tools of her trade. But the big question is: what did she really think of Wayne? Well, shucks, she liked him just fine. “He was there on the set before anyone else and knew every line perfectly,” Darby told the Los Angeles Times in 2011.

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18. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is to Westerns what cheese is to pasta: the perfect match. The man scored his breakthrough role in long-running TV Western Rawhide – and he’s barely put down his six-shooter for decades. Seriously: he redefined the genre with 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – then redefined it all over again in 1992’s Unforgiven.

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Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down, either. He’s got four Oscars to his name, for producing and directing Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. And the 90-year-old has a new film – Cry Macho – lined up for 2021. We’ll have to wait and see whether he’s got another Western under his hat, though.

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17. Katharine Ross

In 1969 Katharine Ross lit up the screen in a pair of Westerns opposite Robert Redford. The first is perennial favorite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The other is a cowboy movie called Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Ross’ performances in both flicks were so eye-catching that she yee-hawed her way to the BAFTA for Best Actress.

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Ross has not been far from the public’s imaginations since the 1960s either. Part of that is because she’s still popping up on the big and small screens – and part of it is down to her husband. Yep, Ross married the mighty Sam Elliott in 1984, and the couple have been going strong since. They’ve even starred in a Western together!

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16. Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall has left his mark on Hollywood in a number of ways. Who could forget his classic line – “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” – from Apocalypse Now? So it’s no surprise the cinema legend saddled up for several classic Westerns, too. We’re talking True Grit, Lonesome Dove, Open Range – the list goes on!

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Duvall hasn’t put away his spurs yet, either. In 2015 the actor wrote, directed and starred in the Western Wild Horses. Away from the American frontier, he put in an appearance in the critically acclaimed Widows in 2018. The legend has completed work on two future projects as well – including a spot opposite funnyman Adam Sandler.

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15. Kevin Costner

Hollywood had all but stopped making Westerns in the 1980s, thinking they were box office poison. But then Kevin Costner came along with Dances with Wolves and blew everyone away. Yes, sir, the picture scored seven Oscars and $424 million in ticket sales – and led to a revival of the classic genre. Not bad for a directorial debut, eh?

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Costner’s star famously waned in the 1990s, but the actor-director had something of a renaissance in the 2010s. He’s even got back on the horse for various Westerns. These days, in fact, you can see Costner on the small screen in the popular Western series Yellowstone. And he told Gold Derby in 2020, “If you make the right kind of Western, they’re unforgettable.” Quite.

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14. Gene Hackman

Gene Hackman already had an Oscar in his holster when he starred in 1974 Western Zandy’s Bride. But even though he didn’t come to the genre right out of the gate, the star still left a towering impression. After all, Hackman’s second Oscar came for his part in Clint Eastwood’s seminal Unforgiven.

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Hackman also had stand-out roles in Wyatt Earp and The Quick and the Dead. And despite retiring from acting after 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport, the star hasn’t forgotten about the Western genre. Because Hackman authored a cowboy novel named Payback at Morning Peak in 2011.

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13. Robert Redford

Robert Redford is so well-known for his role in 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that he named a film festival after the beloved character. It’s far from the only time that Redford saddled up for the genre, though. Other cowboy entries include 1972’s celebrated Jeremiah Johnson and his 1998 directorial effort, The Horse Whisperer.

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Redford’s last major role in front of the camera came with 2018’s The Old Man & The Gun. The star told Time in 2018, “[I’ll] move towards retirement after this ’cause I’ve been doing it since I was 21.” But Redford has not shut the saloon door on testing his acting chops again. “Never say never,” he said.

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12. Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern has an incredible 185 acting credits listed on his IMDb page. His early career was packed with appearances in classic TV Westerns such as The Virginian, Wagon Train, Rawhide and Gunsmoke. Then he graduated to the big leagues in cowboy adventures such as The War Wagon with John Wayne and Hang ’Em High with Clint Eastwood.

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Given the man’s staggering amount of credits, it’s probably not surprising that Dern has no fewer than ten upcoming projects. He’s donned his cowboy boots again for roles in Westerns, too. You might have even caught him in Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 epic, The Hateful Eight. But to some Old West fans, he’ll always be the bad dude who gunned down John Wayne in The Cowboys.

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11. Jeff Bridges

There’s no denying that Jeff Bridges looks good in a Stetson! And he’s donned the classic hat for many a Western in his time. He even appeared in classic 1960s’ TV show The Loner as well as 1970s movies such as Bad Company and Hollywood Cowboy. But Bridges was also part of Heaven’s Gate – the infamous flick that all but killed Westerns in the 1980s.

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Yet in recent years, Bridges has found that the Western has been good to him. The star was Oscar nominated for his turn in 2010 remake True Grit – and again as the sheriff in 2016’s Hell or High Water. The genre is actually one close to Bridges’ heart, too. After all, his father – Lloyd Bridges – starred in a fair few good ones!

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10. Buck Taylor

It was perhaps inevitable that Buck Taylor would earn his spurs in Westerns. After all, his father was Dub Taylor – an actor also well-known for cowboy movies. But of his 117 acting credits, Buck is still fondly thought of as Newly in TV’s Gunsmoke. He played the role for eight years – or 174 episodes – so that’s kind of understandable.

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And even after Gunsmoke finished in 1975, Buck never strayed too far from his Western roots. In the intervening years, he’s saddled up for gun-totin’ movies such as Tombstone, Cowboys & Aliens and Wild Wild West. He even paints Western scenes you can buy! Plus he appears alongside fellow Western star Kevin Costner in Yellowstone.

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9. Lee Majors

Such is the appeal of Lee Majors that the star is known for not one but three major TV shows. And while some people may remember him for The Six Million Dollar Man or The Fall Guy, we’re really interested in his time in The Big Valley. Here, Majors played Heath in all of the Western show’s 112 episodes.

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The Big Valley provided Majors with his acting breakthrough, but the star hasn’t much returned to Westerns since. Yet the show holds a special place in his heart. In 2015 Majors told Den of Geek, “To this day, [The Six Million Dollar Man] was the hottest series I did – even though, for me, it’s Big Valley I liked very much.”

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8. James Caan

Oscar-nominee James Caan cut his teeth on TV in Westerns such as Wagon Train and Death Valley Days. Then he made the leap to big-screen cowboy movies with 1965’s The Glory Guys – and scored a Golden Globe nod. Almost straight after that, too, Caan shared the screen with the ultimate Western star – John Wayne – in El Dorado.

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Caan has barely stopped working since. Notably, of course, he picked up an Oscar nom in 1973 for his part in The Godfather. And these days Caan has returned to the Western with Hallmark’s J.L. Family Ranch series. He seems to be enjoying it, too! “It’s always more interesting to play the villain,” he told the New York Post in 2016.

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7. Mitch Vogel

The character of Jamie Hunter Cartwright joined Bonanza in season 12 – and made actor Mitch Vogel a household name. Vogel was only 14 years old at the time, and he stayed on the Western hit for three seasons. IMDb even described the red-headed star as “one of Hollywood’s top performers during the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

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But Vogel didn’t turn his acting days into a life-long career. In fact, his last credit came in 1978 – just five years after the end of Bonanza. But he clearly only looks back on his time on the Nevada ranch with fond memories. “I’m really grateful that Bonanza has touched people like it has,” the actor told Jeremy Roberts in 2017.

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6. Tim Matheson

In 1969 at the age of 22, Tim Matheson starred as Jim Horn in The Virginian. He had a decent tenure, too, playing the role for 24 episodes. And after that Matheson shifted to Western stalwart Bonanza. His time as Griff King didn’t last quite as long – just 15 episodes – but both parts certainly helped shape Matheson’s later career.

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The actor explained to Smashing Interviews Magazine that he thought he was always playing “the same type of character.” So Matheson looked to change it up. This led him to a role in classic comedy Animal House – and his career has been suitably diverse ever since. Matheson even earned Emmy nods for his time in The West Wing and can now be seen in Netflix hit Virgin River.

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5. Clu Gulager

Clu Gulager first rose to prominence as the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid in perennial TV favorite The Tall Man. Yet he very nearly passed on the role altogether – because he wanted to work in movies. The Western was very good to the actor, though. And after 75 episodes on The Tall Man, Gulager clocked up 104 episodes of The Virginian.

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In the 1980s Gulager switched from cowboy stories to horror movies. He had a good run in films such as Return of the Living Dead and a Freddy Krueger sequel. And the actor is still working today, too, though not as much as he was in the 1960s. You might even have caught a glimpse of him in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.

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4. Robert Colbert

When TV Party asked Robert Colbert about his early career, the actor had an endearing reply. “The Westerns were my favorite because I Ioved horses,” he said. It’s a good job, too, because Colbert spent time on plenty of those shows, including Bronco and Maverick. “I was just having more damned fun,” the star explained.

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Colbert ticked off a few more iconic shows during his acting career, too. There was the short-lived sci-fi The Time Tunnel and an extended tenure in The Young and the Restless, among others. But Colbert’s most recent IMDb credit is a 1995 episode of Baywatch, so it appears the one-time Western fixture is in retirement.

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3. Johnny Crawford

In 1959 ABC’s Western The Rifleman earned two Emmy Award nominations. One was for Best Western Series; the other was for Johnny Crawford for Best Supporting Actor. What’s amazing, though, is that Crawford was only 13 years old at the time of his Emmy nod. That speaks very highly of the impact the actor must have had on the show!

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In 2019 Crawford actually returned to the Western genre with the movie The Marshal, opposite Robert Carradine. Yet Crawford hasn’t focused solely on acting since his days as a child cowboy star. Because he formed The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra in the 1990s, and you can catch his arrangements on the 2012 record Sweepin’ The Clouds Away.

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2. Mickey Kuhn

In Mickey Kuhn’s short-but-storied acting career, he starred alongside Western greats John Wayne and James Stewart. That was for 1948 classic Red River and 1950’s Broken Arrow. And Kuhn confessed to Naples Daily News in 2017 that Wayne had been his favorite star. “I looked up to him,” Kuhn said.

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Yet the dominance of Westerns in Hollywood in the 1950s was actually the reason Kuhn stopped acting. That’s because his mom told him not to do them. “In her mind, I was a better actor than a cowboy actor, but I wasn’t,” he told Naples Daily News. So Kuhn joined the Navy and took various odd jobs throughout the years. He still talks with fondness about his Western days in Tinseltown, though.

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1. Racquel Welch

Everybody’s seen that poster of Racquel Welch on the beach in One Million Years B.C. But there is more to the actress than her beauty. She earned a Golden Globe for 1973’s The Three Musketeers, for one thing. And she also brought her incredible presence to the Western genre in Bandolero!, 100 Rifles and, significantly, 1971’s Hannie Caulder.

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Hannie Caulder actually turned out to partly inspire Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. And Welch’s enduring appeal hasn’t been lost on the general public, either. The actress had TV show Date My Dad and movie How to Be a Latin Lover out in 2017, after all.

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