In the summer of 1996, the nationally recognized literary magazine Clockwatch Review: a journal of the arts was planning a special Western issue and mailed a series of questions to a number of actors that had appeared in Western films or television shows. Three—Charlton Heston, Will Hutchins, and Michael Pate—responded, while another, Hugh O’Brian, preferred to talk by phone during a later October 6, 1996 interview. That special issue of Clockwatch Review never left the corral, but it seemed a durned shame to waste the actors’ responses to James Plath’s questions.

Heston in The Big Country

Heston, who died in 2008, was quick to point out that he didn’t appear in many Westerns, but one of his most memorable roles was Will Penny (1968), an aging cowboy who takes a job at a large cattle spread and finds that things are changing rapidly. He also appeared in such Westerns as The Savage (1952), Arrowhead (1953), Pony Express (1953), Three Violent People (1956), The Big Country (1958), Major Dundee (1965), The Last Hard Men (1976), and The Mountain Men (1980).

The Australian-born Pate, who also died in 2008, had a film career as a character actor that spanned 40 years. He appeared in such TV series and films as Broken Arrow (1956), The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1957), Zorro (1958), Sugarfoot (1958), Westbound (1958), The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1959), Black Saddle (1959), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1959), Zane Grey Theater (1956-60), Maverick (1961), Tales of Wells Fargo (1960-61), Laramie (1960-62), Have Gun Will Travel (1957-62), The Rifleman (1958-62), Rawhide (1959-64), and Gunsmoke (1957-64). He also played Chief Puma in McLintock!, the rousing 1963 John Wayne Western, and 10 years earlier played Chief Vittorio in Hondo, which also starred Wayne.

Hutchins, still living, co-starred in two Elvis Presley films but is best known for his signature role as “Sugarfoot” Tom Brewster in a one-hour Western series that ran from 1957-61. But he also appeared in TV episodes of Maverick (1960), Cheyenne (1961), Bronco (1961), and Gunsmoke (1963), as well as the later Western films The Shooting (1966), Maverick (1994), and Gunfighter (1999). 

O’Brian, who died in 2016, was best known for playing famed Western marshal Wyatt Earp in TV’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61). He also played Earp or himself as Earp in cameos on The Danny Thomas Show (1956), Alias Jesse James (1959), The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (1960), Paradise (1989), Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990), The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991), and Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994). Other Westerns he appeared in include Little Big Horn (1951), Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas (1951), Cave of Outlaws (1951), The Raiders (1952), The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), The Cimarron Kid (1952), The Lawless Breed (1952), Seminole (1953),  The Man from the Alamo (1953), The Stand at Apache River (1953), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Saskatchewan (1954), Broken Lance (1954), Drums Across the River (1955), “Billy and the Bride” on TV’s  Stage 7 (1955), The Virginian (1962), and The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last film. O’Brian founded the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, which has sponsored more than a half-million students since the nonprofit youth leadership program began in 1958.

Did you WANT to play a western hero/sidekick/villain, or did you resist?

Heston:  Of course I wanted to play in Westerns, though so far I’ve made less than a dozen.

Hutchins:  I played all three: Sugarfoot, a reluctant hero; the notorious Canary Kid, Sugarfoot’s nemesis; and Warren Oates’ sidekick in The Shooting. Loved all three.

Pate:  Of course. Didn’t every youngster in the Western world of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and the ‘60s—the decade they stopped making Westerns, real Westerns that is, with the exception perhaps of Lonesome Dove. I hated the Unforgiven, but don’t tell Clint. In those far-off, halcyon days, every young fella played cowboys and Indians—but I doubt any one of them ever wanted to be an Injun!

O’Brian as Wyatt Earp

O’Brian:  The wardrobe was a major fight, because they wanted me to wear a light-colored hat. They showed me what the hell they had laid out—they wanted me to wear the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers type clothes, the singing cowboy look—and I said, “Oh shit, forget that,” and I went and picked out what I felt Wyatt Earp wore. I looked at all the pictures and stuff and I picked out the black, flat-brimmed hat because I saw a picture that he had a similar hat and I picked it. And it was a frock coat and vest because that’s what the guy that owned the drug store wore, or the guy that owned the hardware store, or the mayor, because that was the wardrobe for a businessman. There weren’t any uniforms in those days. I mean, the only thing that came close to it was the badge.

Cowboys have long been a favorite with the American reading and movie-going public. What, do you think, is their appeal?

Heston:  Westerns have long been popular around the world, not just in America. Western protagonists in the time I’ve been making films have been rarely either mythic or heroic figures. What has drawn audiences is the image of the Westerner as survivor, solitary and independent. In an increasingly organized society, this is a very attractive idea.

Hutchins:  Deep down, people love the good that’s in them, the beauty we’re all born with—truth/good/beauty in constant conflict with the Mr. Hyde inside us all—Westerns R Us.

Pate:  They roamed free. There were no borders, or else they never acknowledged them. Those cowboys stood 10 feet tall in most people’s eyes and they just moseyed everywhere they wanted to. Trail drives must have had an enormous attraction to any young fella who wanted to go West— as in Cowboy and Red River and about 10 dozen other films whose titles slip my mind, for the moment.

Owen Wister, author of the Western that started it all (The Virginian), called cowboys “knights on horseback.” What about the Western hero seems larger-than-life or super-heroic?

Hutchins as Sugarfoot

Hutchins:  My all-time hero is Will Rogers, the Cherokee Kid—cowboy, rope and tale spinner, humorist, actor, etc. He showed us the great possibilities in being a human being—he never learned to shoot a gun.

Pate:  Owen Wister was very discerning. Cowboys sat on and rode their horses like knights of old, but without armor, death-defying—nobody could kill a cowboy! Cowboys upheld basic tenets of honor and loyalty to their fellow men and women. And the mere fact that the cinematic cowboy was up on the Silver Screen 20 feet tall or in the pages of the then very popular Western novel/novelette in its many forms—small, fairly cheap hardback down to four-penny dreadful, even in learned historical tomes—made the cowboy, the Western hero, far bigger than anyone had ever been before in every moviegoer’s imagination and estimation.

O’Brian:  You go back to Daniel Webster and the Senate saying, you know, trying to talk against the Louisiana Purchase and any future development of the West because it was nothing out there except savages and prairie dogs. Eventually people would have migrated and gone west, because you’re never going to hold people back from development, whether it be in the country or whether it be in space. Shannon Lucid just came back down from 180 days in space. She was, is, a knight on horseback because space is, of course, the next frontier.

Mythic heroes embody virtues that society values or aspires to attain. How do you think the Western hero reflects American values?

Heston:  I have never played in a Western what I would describe as “mythic hero.” The idea of the independent, free man is central to the whole American experience.

Hutchins:  I think cowboys are excellent father figures for kids. In Wister’s The Virginian, the hero chose the good path; his pal, Steve, chose the bad path. We all make that choice. Cowboys help us decide.

Pate in Westbound

Pate:  For many, many decades, from the early writings of Fennimore Cooper through Clarence E. Mulford, Zane Grey and all those other wonderful, often pseudonymous Western writers to Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry, et alia, Western heroes in popular literature have exemplified/delivered a version of the Arthurian legend in one form or another, not only to the American reading and cinema-going public, but to countless millions of other people throughout the world.

O’Brian:  A loner out against the elements and the adventurer and the explorer all combined into that solitary figure. Trying to survive but trying to seek his fortune and to “Go West young man.”

There’s a great story about the gunfight at the end [of The Shootist, John Wayne’s last movie]. All that gunfight was done without him being there because he became ill. We had to finally close down for several weeks, and when we came back and we only shot a half-day, the director said “Let’s go look at rushes” and Wayne invited me to go with him, which was quite an honor. And we were sitting there looking at the rushes and the first person in that barroom fight that gets hit in that fight is the kid who starts the fight, and then the way the director shot it is that he runs out and then Wayne’s character shoots him in the back. And Wayne stood up and said, “Wait a fuckin’ minute. I’ve done 300-whatever films, never shot anybody in the back. You’d better redo that or you get another bullet.” And we redid it. He was absolutely right.

As an actor, what did you have to do in order to convincingly play a Western hero/sidekick/villain?

Heston:  A trivial question. You play a Western role as you do any other.

Pate:  Believe in honestly and fully, bring to life with care and deep affection whatever character I was playing in whatever film or TV episode. It, of course, took a great deal of thought, research, and solid actor’s instinct.

Hutchins:  Learned to get on and off and ride a hoss. Not easy. Hours in the saddle. Had to learn a fast draw. Not easy. Shot myself in the leg a few times. Didn’t hurt. The tetanus shots did.

O’Brian: I mean, you put on that outfit and one way or the other you can almost sense a, depending on whether you were playing the good guy or the bad guy, but you can feel that period. I just let myself be [Wyatt Earp]. I just felt very strong and I felt very capable, very sure of myself. I felt that part of history.

O’Brian and the Buntline in Return to Tombstone

I took it upon myself to learn the quick draw because I thought that, number one, [Wyatt Earp] must have been pretty damn good because there weren’t that many quick draws—I’m sure you know that—in real life. I wanted to perfect that and I became fast, and then there was a lot of competition that came. You know, the fastest gun, at least in the business anyway. They started having these quick draw contests around the country and stupid jerks would use live ammunition. One guy shot himself in the foot [laughs]. They used to have quick draw clubs all over the country . . . you know, the same people that belonged to the National Rifle Association. And then I’d be invited to those things all the time. . . . But the [Colt] Buntline [Special] we thought would be good simply because it had an unusual look to it. So we cheated a little bit with history and used it because it was a good visual gimmick. And then, okay, you want me to use this? How would I use it? I put it on a double holster, I put it on the left-hand side and used it as a baton, as a club, and it was very effective because I could reach out another foot. Quite often, if I couldn’t handle a guy, couldn’t outtalk him and get him to go to jail or whatever, especially with a drunk or something I’d belt him over the head rather than shooting him. I mean, Wyatt never . . . only time he killed anybody was because that person shooting Morgan [Earp] in the back and he went out [on the Earp Vendetta Ride] to get that and he did.

Could you comment on memorable moments playing any of the Western characters you did, or any insights you might have gained trying to get into the head of such a historical character?

Heston:  Though I’ve played more than a dozen historical figures, several of them undeniably great men, none was in a Western. [Actually, Heston played Buffalo Bill Cody in the 1953 film Pony Express and Lt. William Clark two years later The Far Horizons].

Hutchins as a lawman in Sugarfoot

Hutchins:  During the filming of the very first Sugarfoot, I was constantly practicing my fast draw. One day Slim Pickens snuck up behind me and shot off a full load in his pistol. I jumped out of my boots. Big laugh. Slim said he did the same thing once to Audie Murphy. Audie didn’t even blink.

O’Brian:  How steady [Earp] was, and what a very, very solid stance he had. Not that he was that much of a formidable figure athletically, but he was a very straight, very upright six-foot individual and with solid staring eyes that made [the hellraising Thompson brothers he challenged] all go in, nice and peacefully, pay the fine and get the hell out of here. . . . But there’s the solitary figure that stood up against, you know, a tremendous force. The approach that Wyatt had, right at that particular moment, was his calling throughout his life and his career. He would think of what was the logical way to handle a situation. And he did that throughout his career. One hundred and fifty-some gunfights, he never got wounded.

Stuart Lake, who was our consultant and leader, in terms of authenticity, was commissioned by Saturday Evening Post  back in the twenties to do a story on Earp. He spent five years off and on, gaining his confidence. And they wound up, I think, in a very strong friendship. And then, I think, the definitive book on the topic is The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which is of course what we based the series on. [Lake] was instrumental in my being chosen to play the role. He was part of the interview process and he was a Marine. He knew, or found out that I was a Marine—not only a Marine, but the youngest drill instructor in the history of the Marine Corps, when I just turned 18. And I think that impressed him.

Pate:  I could give you many instances. They’d fill a book.

O’Brian: [On filming Return to Tombstone in 1994] I guess we were the first company to have ever shot in Tombstone . . . a town of about 600 about 45 or 60 miles from Tucson and off the beaten track. And I got out of the van in my outfit and makeup and everything to do the first shot, which happened to be in downtown Tombstone, and there must have been five, six thousand people that had come from all over the goddamned place because they had heard we were filming there. And they started singing the Wyatt Earp theme song. They had mics for me and I went up and thanked them all for showing up and said I wouldn’t have time for autographs because I had to film, but if they wanted to give me their address I’d send them a picture. I said, “Hey, I think that’s just great that you still remember the theme song, and anybody that knows the second verse, I’ll give you five bucks.” Well, I lost $1850 before you could shake a stick. I never do that anymore.

Westerns were at the height of their popularity during the ‘50s. Could you speculate why then? And in a related question, why do you think there was a resurgence of interest in the Western back in the ‘90s?

Heston: Westerns were popular from the beginning of film, certainly through the ‘60s. There’s been a strong renaissance in the last 10 years or so, possibly stimulated by a growing perception that the “nanny” state is increasingly intruding on individual freedom.

O’Brian:  I think that also at that particular time and place, the situation in Korea was over, we hadn’t had a World War since the forties. It was a pretty comfortable time. I think that the desire for action, this was a very, reasonably cheap film to make. You could do it on a reasonable budget. And those were the days when people used to have friends over to watch television. The Wyatt Earp show and other popular shows in those days, you’d get 20-30 people in a living room looking at it, and, of course, one of the reasons was because not everybody had a television set. [The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp] was the first adult show [set in the West]. I’ll give you the simple explanation. The cowboy still kisses the horse, but he worries about it [laughs]. What made it adult? I think hiring Stuart Lake and then having the bad guy not be bad just to be bad. The problems that people had as individuals—whether it be an emotional problem, whether it be a short temper, whether it be an illness, whether it be poverty, whether it be his pregnant wife and he hasn’t got a job and he needs to get some money—all the things that go into play in the history of civilization. Nobody set out to be bad just because they wanted to be bad, you know. . . . So our scripts basically dealt with the human factor.

Hutchins:  Back in the ‘50s times were better and simpler. We were pretty content. The Westerns back then reflected that well—good vs. evil, good wins. Nowadays, evil often wins. We’ve grown cynical. Today’s Westerns reflect that. I don’t watch ‘em. Don’t mess with my myths, man.

Pate:  After WWII, America, the whole world needed a new batch of simple, worthy heroes. The soldiers—hardly properly deified for their incredible achievements in the war—had faded away, gone back to obscurity. New, substantial, even if purely cinematic heroes were needed. The Cold War didn’t offer any, so what better than heroes of a by-gone era—not all that far away that they were relics from the Civil War, just the cowboys of the Wild West. The West was the Word and the Word was taken up with a vengeance by Hollywood once again, made into REALLY BIG BOX OFFICE this time—[John] Wayne, [Gary] Cooper, [Gregory] Peck, Randy Scott, Joel McCrea, even [Marlon] Brando, [Robert] Mitchum and Audie Murphy—and, of course, a continuous parade of TV cowboys.

Pate in Hondo

The (in my opinion, minor) resurgence of the ‘90s—for what it is, and it is fairly miniature and only partially authentic—leaves much to be desired when you compare the output with the films made in the past years. The Unforgiven, the remake of Maverick, Silverado, Young Guns, that awful film in which Sharon Stone appeared [The Quick and the Dead], the all-girl gunfighters fiasco [Bad Girls] are almost as hokey as the Three Amigos! The first mini-series of Lonesome Dove had some very good stuff in it; the follow-up, with my dear old geriatric friend and fellow golfer, James Garner, heading it up, was awful—as good an actor as he can be. Probably the only half-decent Western of the past decade or more was Dancing with Wolves, and it was a trifle thin in parts.