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15 Greatest Western TV Characters of All Time

15 Greatest Western TV Characters of All Time


  • Character-driven Western TV shows like
    , and
    helped shape the genre’s golden age on television.
  • From Marshal Matt Dillon to Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, these iconic Western TV characters left an enduring mark on pop culture.
  • Bold and unforgettable, characters like Lucas McCain, Kwai Chang Caine, and Al Swearengen continue to captivate audiences to this day.



Since the inception of Hollywood itself, the Western genre has captivated audiences with the thrilling adventures of unforgettable cowboys, outlaws, and gunslingers. These heroes have left an everlasting mark on the entertainment industry, and many of them made their names on the small screen.

The world of television has been home to some seriously spectacular shows that all focused on the American frontier and the Wild West, with trailblazing hits like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Lone Ranger becoming ratings successes during their runs. Cinema legends Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen both got their big breaks in the Western genre, just like how David Carradine first rose to prominence in Kung Fu. But when it comes to televised Westerns, these legends shine just as brightly as their theatrical counterparts. These are 15 of the greatest Western TV characters of all time.

15 Eric “Hoss” Carwright (Bonanza)

For a whopping 415 episodes, Dan Blocker portrayed the lovable gentle giant Eric “Hoss” Cartwright in the groundbreaking series Bonanza, which centered on the affluent Cartwright family as they fought to protect their Nevada ranch from outside threats in the dangerous Wild West. The sensational program ran for 14 seasons and became one of the longest-running U.S. Westerns, delivering brilliant ratings and garnering widespread acclaim.

A Knockout Western Great

Beloved for being big and friendly and earning his endearing nickname because of his compassionate demeanor, Hoss was the middle Cartwright child and was deeply loyal and fiercely protective of his loved ones and friends. Upon the show’s debut in 1959, Hoss quickly became its breakout character and was a staple in Bonanza until Dan Blocker’s untimely death at 43 in 1972. Rather than try and fail to recast the unique role, producers decided to write Hoss off (the first time in television history to do so with a male lead, per Mental Floss). Bonanza lasted one season without Blocker before bidding farewell in 1973. Stream on Prime VIdeo

14 Marshal Matt Dillon (Gunsmoke)

Initially a radio series that ran from 1952 to 1961, Gunsmoke was given the television treatment in 1955 with James Arness starring as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. The series followed the lawman as he fights to keep peace and order in Dodge City, Kansas. Western icon John Wayne recommended Arness for the lead character and felt he was going to be a huge up-and-comer, and he even introduced the actor as the tough and rugged Matt Dillon in a prologue for the show’s first episode.


Why the Longest-Running Western TV Show Ended So Abruptly

After 20 seasons, the iconic Western television series Gunsmoke ended without a proper series finale.

Arness’ Weary & Determined Marshal

Never one to shy away from using force to subdue a criminal, the world-weary Dillon had grown accustomed to the violence and dangers that came with his job and became wiser as the years raged on. A man with a conscience who expresses regret when having to take a life, Dillon is a resilient lawman who has been shot and wounded numerous times over the show’s run, yet always manages to outmaneuver his adversaries in the pursuit of justice. Gunsmokeran for twenty seasons and held the record for being the longest-running Primetime series until being surpassed by Law & Order: SVU in 2019. Stream on Paramount+

13 The Lone Ranger & Tonto (The Lone Ranger)

Undeniably one of the small screen’s most iconic crime-fighting duos, The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels) took on nefarious outlaws and traveled the American West while restoring law and order to the country in The Lone Ranger. After living through a lethal ambush that left five of his fellow Texas Rangers dead, the eponymous hero is nursed back to good health by the kind Native American Tonto, and decides to become a vigilante with his savior and new companion.

Formidable Crime-Fighting Duo

The Lone Ranger became ABC’s first official hit and was the highest-rated show on the network, with fans tuning in week-after-week to watch the fearsome twosome take on outlaws of all shapes and sizes. Each episode of the five-season series famously concluded with someone asking who that masked man was, as the heroes would ride off to their next destination in the pursuit of justice. Both Moore and Silverheels would also go on to reprise their roles for two theatrical features, both of which proved to be modest hits. Stream on Tubi

12 Bret Maverick (Maverick)

James Garner landed his big Hollywood breakthrough when he took on the role as the cool, calm, and collected poker-playing rounder Bret Maverick in the smash-hit series Maverick, following the titulargambler as he and his equally cunning brothers travel the country in search of both a high-stakes poker game and a good time. The exciting program originally solely starred Garner as the one and only Maverick, but later added in his brother Bart (Jack Kelly) in order to have more episodes on hand for a season.

Garner Becomes a Leading Man

Bret Maverick is sly and fun-loving. The character flipped the traditional cowboy characteristics upside down, as the television hero was apprehensive to risk his life and stick his nose into trouble. Nonetheless, Maverick always rose to the occasion and proved to be courageous when duty called, and he always walked away from a gunfight triumphant. Maverick helped make Garner a household name and proved to be ratings gold, beating out fellow heavy hitter The Ed Sullivan Show in viewership and becoming an instant Western classic. Rent/Buy on Prime Video

11 Cullen Bohannon (Hell on Wheels)

Chronicling the crusade former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) embarks upon to avenge the brutal deaths of his wife and son, Hell on Wheels focuses on Cullen as he joins the Union Pacific Railroad to hunt down the Union soldiers responsible for the crimes during the American Civil War. Plagued by guilt over the murders of his family and by the horrors he witnessed in battle, Cullen travels west and becomes a resident of the titular lawless town, which subsequently moves along with the construction of the railroad. Along his journey for retribution, the determined man ends up climbing the ranks within the Transcontinental Railroad, ultimately discovering a new purpose and calling in his life.

A Man’s Merciless Mission

To prepare for his audition as the revenge-seeking Cullen Bohannon, Mount played the video game Red Dead Redemption, as many felt the former soldier bared a striking resemblance to the game’s lead character, John Marston. Though Mount borrows heavily from cinematic westerns in his performance, as described in an interview with Uproxx, he still brings a more intimate touch to the character due to the series’ expansive scope and length. Hell on Heels was an underrated show that ran for five thrilling seasons and showcased Cullen’s personal struggles and growth as a character, while depicting the history of the railroad. Stream on Apple TV+

10 Lucas McCain (The Rifleman)

Set in the fictional town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory during the 1880s, The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors as Union veteran and widower Lucas McCain, who returns to his life as a rancher after serving in the war. Now living on the homestead, he also raises his young son, Mark. McCain helps Marshal Micah Torrance attempt to keep the community and its residents civil and preserve law and order while acclimating to his new world and reality.

Devoted & Protective Father

The series featured Lucas McCain famously toting his signature Winchester Model 1892 rifle, as producers wanted to be able to distinguish the character and show from competing Westerns on television. McCain is extremely protective of his son and is known throughout the land as an intimidating and highly-skilled shooter who makes it his mission to keep North Fork safe. After five seasons starring in the lead role, Connors went on to reprise the character in the 1991 made-for-TV film The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. Stream on Prime Video

9 Victoria Barkley (The Big Valley)

Silver screen staple Barbara Stanwyck shifted her illustrious career to the world of television when she headlined The Big Valley. The series follows wealthy family matriarch Victoria Barkley (Stanwyck) and her adult children as they keep their California ranch up-and-running in the 1870s, tackling one adventure after another. The owner and head of the Barkley ranch, Victoria, stepped up to keep the homestead running after the death of her husband, doing so with admirable determination and fervor. After her husband’s passing six years prior, Victoria traded in her elegant gowns and high-society functions for denim jeans and the cowgirl life, becoming hands-on with the ranch.

A Tough & Feisty Heroine

The character was a bit controversial at the time due to Stanwyck’s unwavering resolve to portray Victoria as a strong and capable woman, as opposed to the fragile, damsel types often depicted in Westerns. Stanwyck became one of the most popular and successful actresses on television during the show’s four seasons, winning a Primetime Emmy for her feisty performance. On top of her Emmy win for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series, she would earn two more nominations for the same award in the successive years afterward. Currently unavailable for streaming.


The 10 Longest-Running Western TV Series of All Time

These long-running Western shows proved that the popular big-screen genre could also dominate on the small screen.

8 James West (The Wild Wild West)

The Wild Wild West brilliantly blended the Western, sci-fi, and spy genres and centered on the many wondrous adventures of the handsome and confident James West (Robert Conrad) and gadget-savvy Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) two prominent Secret Service agents who are tasked with protecting the country and President Ulysses S. Grant from nefarious threats and deadly foes.

Television’s Quirky Duo

The fun and quirky series focused on the delightful duo as they battled against larger-than-life villains by utilizing Gordon’s dazzling inventions and West’s fearless resolve, with the Western being regarded as a major pioneer in the steampunk genre. Conrad performed most of his own fight scenes and stunts over the course of The Wild Wild West‘s four seasons, and his performance as the suave and sophisticated agent became the most celebrated role of his career; the lead pair would go on to reunite for two made-for-TV films in 1970 and 1980. Stream on Prime Video

7 Raylan Givens (Justified)

Widely regarded as one of the greatest shows of the 2010s and an acclaimed addition to the neo-Western genre, Justified is based on the Elmore Leonard novels and focuses on the headstrong, cowboy hat-sporting lawman Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he uses his own unique brand of justice to take down bad guys in his home turf of Harlan County, Kentucky.

Throwback to Classic Cowboys

Olyphant shined as the silent and stoic Givens, a man with a checkered past who is quick to shoot first and ask questions later. Because of this, he had subsequently become the problem child of the law enforcement service. The laconic, laid-back cowboy must face familiar faces like his harsh father Arlo and former friend-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) throughout the compelling drama, enchanting audiences along the way. Olyphant said that he was drawn to portray Raylan because of “the ease and the charm and the sort of old-fashionedness” of the character, and he reprised the role for the limited sequel series Justified: City Primeval. Stream on Hulu

6 Kwai Chang Caine (Kung Fu)

The late and great David Carradine first embraced his love of martial arts when he portrayed the perpetually wandering, zen Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, which chronicled the peace-loving, half-Chinese/half-White-American man as he traveled throughout the American West in search of his family roots and mysterious half-brother Danny Caine. Along the way, Caine uses his impressive skills to fight for the underdog and promote unity and compassion.

A Lifelong Passion Is Ignited

The decision to cast the non-Asian Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine sparked initial controversy due to accusations of whitewashing, but the actor quickly showcased his respect and talent for the role and left a lasting impression. Caine stuck to his beliefs and morals and only utilized his training when he had to defend himself or someone else being wronged, and the character and show is credited with helping popularize both Eastern philosophy and martial arts for audiences in the west. Carradine was also compelled to study and practice Shaolin quan and kung fu after landing the career-defining role. Buy on Apple TV+

5 The Virginian (The Virginian)

Set in late 19th century Wyoming before it became a state, The Virginian is based on the Owen Wister novel of the same name and centers on the titular Shiloh Ranch foreman (James Drury) as he helped keep the establishment afloat while also enforcing the law in the surrounding rugged region. Throughout the course of the series, the Virginian worked as the foreman for five distinct ranch owners and dealt with a colorful array of problems and hurdles, but ultimately remained devoted to his duties.

Trailblazing TV Western

The Virginian was television’s first 90-minute Western program and ran for an impressive nine seasons and 249 episodes, with viewers watching in wonder as the tough-as-nails ranch hand made it his mission to enforce order in Wyoming. Producers of the show specifically chose not to reveal the foreman’s real name and kept his background mysterious, in hopes that it would increase audience intrigue and set itself apart from other Westerns; the approach worked, and The Virginian became a major ratings success. Stream on Freevee

4 Rowdy Yates (Rawhide)

Hollywood legend and Western icon Clint Eastwood skyrocketed to prominence when he landed the pivotal role of Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, sharing the screen with fellow star Eric Fleming. The series took place in the 1860s and followed the cattle driving boss Gil Favor, as he and his right-hand-man, Rowdy, commanded a cowhand crew and traveled across the country. Along the way, they had a habit of getting swept up in all kinds of entertaining adventures.


Clint Eastwood’s 20 Most Iconic Movie Characters

From fearless outlaws, to vengeful cowboys, to rogue cops, these are the legendary nonagenarian’s most memorable film roles since 1964.

Eastwood’s Small Screen Beginnings

Rawhide was a major stepping stone in Eastwood’s decades-spanning career and first introduced him to audiences across the world. His brash and confident character, Rowdy, quickly became a beloved fan-favorite. In just three weeks upon its release, the Western reached the top 20 in television ratings and went on to spawn a whopping 8 seasons and 217 episodes. The series and headstrong role gave the talented actor the recognition he needed to begin his cinema takeover, and remains a must-see for both Western and Eastwood lovers. Stream on Pluto TV

3 Al Swearengen (Deadwood)

The critically-acclaimed HBO period drama Deadwood famously details the lawless 1876 mining town as both honorable and shady characters show up in hopes of getting rich. The series focused on former Montana marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) as he arrives to set up a new life and hardware business. Bullock quickly finds himself at odds with Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a ruthless businessman who will stop at nothing to make sure Deadwood thrives.

A Career-Defining Performance

McShane dazzled viewers with his exceptional portrayal of the complex antihero Swearengen, winning a Golden Globe Award for his riveting imagining of the historical figure on top of earning an Academy Award nomination. Heavily considered to be one of the greatest television shows of all time, in large part due to McShane’s unforgettable delivery, Deadwood was shockingly canceled after three seasons (much to the outrage of audiences) but returned to screen thirteen years later. McShane returned to star in Deadwood: The Movie and once again enchanted fans of the original series. Stream on Max

2 Josh Randall (Wanted Dead or Alive)

Before he established himself as the “King of Cool” in cinema, the incomparable Steve McQueen landed his breakthrough role when he starred as bounty hunter Josh Randall in the black-and-white Western Wanted Dead or Alive. A spin-off of the show Trackdown, the exciting series followed a Confederate veteran-turned-bounty hunter as he helps clean up the Wild West in the 1970s, tracking down wanted men and fighting for justice as he travels the countryside.

McQueen’s Transition to the Big Screen

McQueen was specifically sought after by the creators of the program because of his cool and easy-going style, bringing that same attitude to his character Josh Randall and making him an antihero. During his time on the show, the celebrated actor also began to appear in Hollywood productions, including The Magnificent Seven, and McQueen became one of the first television stars to successfully cross over to film. He appeared in all 94 episodes of the series, which was eventually canceled after three seasons. Stream on Tubi

1 Beth Dutton (Yellowstone)

Love her or hate her, but Yellowstone‘s breakout character Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) knows how to leave a lasting impression. The cutthroat daughter of powerful cattle ranch owner John Dutton, Beth and her family fight tooth-and-nail to keep their beloved homestead safe against enemies wanting to encroach upon their land. The knockout series has sparked a cultural phenomenon and its overwhelming success has led to multiple spin-offs surrounding the history of the Dutton clan.

Beth Packs a Powerful Punch

The fiery and resilient character is complex and deeply protective of her family and loved ones, and is never afraid to get her hands dirty for a cause she deems worthwhile. Beth is a true survivor who can handle whatever life throws at her, and is quick to confront her enemies and anyone threatening the Dutton name. She is her father’s ultimate champion and has emerged as one of Yellowstone‘s most buzzed-about and unforgettable characters, with audiences loving to witness Beth’s ferocious attitude and unique brand of chaos. Stream on Peacock

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