8 dusty, forgotten Westerns from 1980s television

Not even Shaft, the Rifleman and a Baldwin could make these a hit.

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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1. 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

2. Paradise

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

3. Outlaws

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 NBC. 

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Wildside

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

5. 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

6. 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

7. 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

8. 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

SEE MORE: 15 forgotten science-fiction TV shows of the 1980s

These ancient aliens, telekinetic teens, dystopian soldiers and time travelers may not have lasted long, but they set the mold. READ MORE

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WILD 1 month ago
I loved Paradise (CBS) on Saturday nights, Bret Maverick (NBC) on Friday nights. I don't remember Wildside because I was watching Magnum P.I. (The real Magnum P.I. not to be confused with what they're calling Magnum P.I. today). Merlin Olson had a recurring role on Little House as well before he did Father Murphy (I never watched it and I gave up on LHOTP early on - both were too goofy goody for me, although I always did like Melissa Sue Anderson).
Ashley 6 months ago
I loved The Young Riders and The Yellow Rose so much I own them on DVD and watch them all the time.I also loved Paradise,Bret Maverick and Father Murphy.I need to see if any of those are on DVD.
MrHaney 7 months ago
Loved "Father Murphy" and "Bret Maverick". What about "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" with Richard Dean Anderson and River Phoenix?
Ashley MrHaney 6 months ago
Loved Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,I had such a crush on River and this was before Stand By Me.
Barry22 7 months ago
The only one of these I remember is 'The Young Riders'
Ashley Barry22 6 months ago
Loved that show!
stephaniestavropoulos 7 months ago
Here's three more to add to the 8:
1. Border Town. The town's name was Pemmican. The town straddled both the U.S. and Canadian borders. {Aired: 1989-1991.}
2. Best Of The West. {This is the only one I noticed that was a sitcom.} "A man moves his city bred family west, and becomes marshall." It starred Joel Higgins whos bigger claim to fame was on Silver Spoons. {As the owner of a toy company.}
3. Zorro And Son {April 6, 1981-June 1 1981.} It starred Henry Darrow as Zorro. He had found fame prior to this as Mano on The High Chaparral. {1967-1971.}
I liked Best of the West.
teire 7 months ago
Really enjoyed Paradise, it was a good Western.
pumkinheadfan teire 7 months ago
I'll second that! I Don't think I seen any of the 3rd season tho. Probably thought Paradise got canceled(due to probably no mention of the title change in the free TV guide in the Sunday paper) and never tuned in.
Ashley pumkinheadfan 6 months ago
I watched it as well,really good show.
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