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Front Row Seat: Deaths of two icons remind us of when Westerns ruled TV

by Mike lesko | reporter Published: October 5, 2016 12:00 AM

Two iconic stars of TV Westerns of yesteryear died this year -- Robert Horton of "Wagon Train" and Hugh O'Brian of "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."

Both were 91 years old and passed away of natural causes.

Both shows flourished during the late 1950s and early 1960s when Westerns seemed to dominate the TV landscape.

Horton, who died March 9, 2016, played scout Flint McCullough on the show that chronicled the adventures of a wagon train on its way from Missouri to California.

As a young boy, I remember crawling on my stomach with a toy gun in one hand in our backyard in Lorain, pretending I was McCullough on the lookout for Indians.

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Horton was the backbone of the series, which began in 1957 and was either No. 1 or No. 2 in the ratings during seasons 2-5. He helped the wagon train squirm out of dangerous situations that he made totally believable.

While most actors used "acting doubles" to portray them riding horses at full speed, Horton did his own riding, which the show demonstrated as he rode from far away to close up without the cameras cutting away.

He is one of the few actors who could make it believable when he kissed actress Rhonda Fleming underneath a covered wagon as hostile Indians charged toward them.

Shockingly, Horton quit the series after five seasons in 1962 while it was the top-rated show in the country. His departure was even more surprising because actor Ward Bond, the other star of the show, died in 1960, leaving the sole starring role to Horton, who reportedly had often quarreled with Bond on the set.

Across the nation, women were saddened at the departure of Horton, the handsome young star. My mom, Bettie, was one of them.

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Horton went on to pursue a career in musical theater, and Wagon Train continued for three more seasons -- partly because it was one of the first TV shows to feature major movie stars in guest starring roles.

The list is remarkable: Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, Linda Darnell, Fleming and Dan Duryea, who made seven appearances.

Horton remains my favorite TV star of all-time.

O'Brian, who died on Sept. 5, 2016, portrayed Earp, a real-life marshal who patrolled Dodge City, Kan., in one of the first great TV Westerns that ran from 1955-61 and finished No. 6 and No. 10 in the Nielsen ratings in two of its six seasons.

O'Brian's character tried to avoid gunfights, sometimes kicking a handgun out of a bad guy's hand. That was one of the show's lessons -- to try to solve a conflict without firearms, if possible.

In the TV show, Earp carried a Buntline Special, a handgun with a 12-inch barrel that caused a toy craze among youngsters across the nation.

My father, Mike Lesko II, got me a toy Buntline Special that I carried with me when I, as a little kid, pretended I was Wyatt Earp, protecting our neighborhood from all the villains that Earp encountered.

When it was apparent that the show was going off the air, the second-to-last episode featured the famed "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," in which the Earp brothers -- Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan -- plus Doc Holliday squared off against the outlaw Clanton gang.

The show's theme song and lyrics are memorable:

"Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp

Brave, courageous and bold.

Long live his name,

And long live his glory,

And long may his story be told."

Both the stories of Wyatt Earp and Flint McCullough are retold on weekdays on the Starz Encore cable network, where the two legends live on forever.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9436


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