8 dusty, forgotten Westerns from 1980s television

By: H&I Staff    Posted: November 7, 2022, 1:27PM

The California Gold Rush may have peaked in 1849, but the Hollywood Western rush peaked in 1959. At one point that year, eight of the top 10 shows on television were Westerns. Viewers had their choice of oaters — the networks offered dozens of different titles in the primetime lineup. 

Three decades later, the well had dried up. While the Western genre was not a complete ghost town, a cowboy on '80s television was about as rare as a tumbleweed blowing down Santa Monica Boulevard. Television's so-called "Rural Purge" of the early 1970s carried some responsibility. Elsewhere, in cinemas, the smiling cowboy atop his white horse had galloped off into the sunset, replaced by morally gray antiheroes in violent masterworks like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Plus, trends just come and go. Fifties kids dreamed of being Roy Rogers. Eighties kids fantasized about Han Solo. The cowboy went to space.

Still, networks continued to toss the occasional Western into their lineups throughout the 1980s. Few, if any, truly clicked with audiences. But these overlooked titled featured some fascinating talents. It was just tough to compete with Knight Rider and ALF.

We've wrangled some mostly forgotten titles. Let's take a gander.

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The Young Riders

The Western genre's biggest moment of the 1980s was perhaps Young Guns, a stylish "Brat Pack" adventure flick that modernized Wild West outlaws to a soundtrack of Bon Jovi. The 1988 movie earned about as much as Child's Play and spawned a sequel, not to mention a few copycats, like this obvious clone. If The Young Riders couldn't land a Sheen or a Sutherland, it did, at least, cast a Baldwin. Well, Stephen. Josh Brolin, in the black hat, is the biggest name in this Pony Express tale, which managed to ride a respectable three seasons, despite weak ratings.

Image: The Everett Collection



Lee Horsley starred as Cord, a gunslinger forced to turn Mr. Drummond when he assumes custody of four kids. He hangs up his holsters and tries to settle down with his new family on a farm. Despite that general plot, CBS gave the series the oxymoronic title The Guns of Paradise in its third season, to underline the fact it was a Western and not, say, a show about lifeguards in Hawaii or whatever.

Image: The Everett Collection



Shaft as a cowboy? Sign us up. Richard Roundtree portrayed one member of "the Pike Gang," the quartet at the center of this Back-to-the-Future-III-in-reverse concept. A lightning bolt in a graveyard sends four outlaws and sheriff 100 years into the future? What do these tough dudes do in 1986? Start a detective agency, naturally. Despite its fantastic premise, Outlaws ran just 13 episodes on CBS. 

Image: The Everett Collection



Here's another Western yarn of outlaws turned good-guys, albeit one set in the appropriate '80s — the 1880s. The Summerhayes boys settle down and turn heroic, a bit like the A-Team with wagons instead of a conversion van. The big problem? Competing against Magnum, P.I. and The Cosby Show. The most notable thing here is Meg Ryan, pictured on the far left. The rising star played a journalist in the town of Wildside. The failure of this show freed her up to do Armed and Dangerous and Innerspace… and launch her career.

Image: The Everett Collection


The Yellow Rose

If you consider Dallas a Western, well the genre was living a healthy life in the 1980s. It's more of a soap opera, of course. This series was similar but played up the cowboy elements — bigger belt buckles, bigger mustaches, and that's just Sam Elliott. Cybill Shepherd was the rising star in this 1983 cast, but the veterans were the real draw. Both Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) and Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke) had regular roles. Despite those icons, the series trotted along for a mere 22 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection


Gun Shy

Barry Van Dyke, son of Dick, headlined this entry from Walt Disney, who looked to recapture the lighthearted cowboy comedy of The Apple Dumpling Gang. Van Dyke played a gambler who wins two kids in a poker game. So think of it as Maverick meets Diff'rent Strokes.

Image: Disney


Bret Maverick

Speaking of Maverick, the witty gambler had not played his last hand. James Garner returned to the role in 1981 in Bret Maverick. The aging Maverick had settled down a bit, running a saloon that he, naturally, had won in a card game. Jack Kelly (Bart Maverick) turned up, too, but the old fellas could not compete against Three's Company in 1981.

Image: The Everett Collection


Father Murphy

Merlin Olsen, former Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle, played a rugged fellow who disguises himself as a priest to help raise orphans on the frontier. The wholesomeness of the show put it more in the vein of Little House or The Waltons, which is likely what makes it perhaps the most fondly recalled titled on this list. There was also Mine, the dog, who was pretty darn adorable.

Image: The Everett Collection


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