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10 Actors Who Were Pioneers of the Western Genre

The Western genre was defined at the dawn of cinema by legendary filmmakers like John Ford, Henry King, and Sergio Leone, and essential films including The Great Train Robbery, Stagecoach, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, iconic stars like John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Gary Cooper solidified Westerns as one of the most popular film genres and was successfully carried on by modern gunslingers including Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.
There is an endless list of actors who made their mark with Western movies, but a few classic film stars like Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and Gregory Peck were crucial players in shaping the classic genre. From Robert Mitchum to John Wayne, these are 10 actors who were pioneers of the Western genre!

10Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum standing alone in El Dorado

Image via Paramount Pictures

Robert Mitchum is universally recognized for his antiheroes and film noir roles in classics like The Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past, but the actor was also successful in the Western genre. Born in Connecticut, Mitchum moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and was encouraged by his sister, Julie, to join a local theater group with her. After taking on numerous roles as an extra and minor parts, he signed a contract with RKO Pictures where he starred in a series of B-Westerns.
RELATED:The Best Western Movies For Newcomers, According To Reddit
Mitchum may have been the soul of film noir, but he continued to appear in several popular Western films including The Lusty Men, The Way West, and River of No Return alongside Marilyn Monroe and Howard Hawks‘ El Dorado with John Wayne and James Caan. He also served as the narrator in the 1993 modern Western, Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer, and Bill Paxton.

9James Stewart

Jimmy-Stewart- With-Cigar- In-ShenandoahImage via Universal Pictures 

Jimmy Stewart is known for his distinctive drawl and playing good ole’ boy roles specifically as George Bailey in the classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, but he also appeared in several epic Westerns that earn him a spot on the list. Stewart started acting while attending Princeton University and after graduation, he appeared on Broadway before earning his breakthrough role in Frank Capra‘s comedy, You Can’t Take It With You.
Stewart starred in several signature Westerns including How the West was Won, Winchester ’73, and most famously, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring Wayne and Lee Marvin. He reunited with Wayne for what turned out to be his co-star’s final film, The Shootist, and also provided the voice for Wylie Burp in Steven Spielberg‘s animated Western, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

8Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck holding coffee mug in The GunfighterImage via 20th Century Studios

In the 1940s, Gregory Peck was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood and while he’s initially recognized by most for his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he also starred in a series of essential Westerns throughout his career. Peck studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City and appeared in over 50 stage productions including several on Broadway. He started his film career in other genres and popular films including Alfred Hitchcock‘s Spellbound and The Yearling.
Peck took his first “against type” role as a cruel cowboy in the 1946 Western, Duel in the Sun and started the 1950s off with what would become one of his most famous Westerns, The Gunfighter. His performance earned him an offer for the lead role in High Noon, but he turned it down out of fear of being typecast as a Western star. Despite his concerns, Peck continued to appear in Westerns including The Bravadoes and How the West Was Won.

7Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda in My Darling ClementineImage via 20th Century Studios

Henry Fonda was a successful Broadway star who made his silver screen debut in the 1935 film, The Farmer Takes a Wife, with Janet Gaynor. He appeared in the romantic Western, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was the first Technicolor movie filmed outdoors, and went on to star in other Westerns like Jesse James and Drums Along the Mohawk directed by John Ford. After serving in World War II, Fonda returned to Hollywood where he reunited with Ford in the Western, My Darling Clementine as Wyatt Earp.
RELATED:10 Actresses Who Were Pioneers Of The Western Genre
Fonda starred in several more Westerns including The Tin Star, Fort Apache with John Wayne and Shirley Temple, and The Ox-Bow Incident. Known for his humble, good guy persona, Fonda eventually took on darker roles later in his career most notably as the merciless villain in the 1962 star-studded movie, How the West Was Won, which is considered one of the best Western movies of all time.

6Lee Van Cleef

Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the UglyImage via United Artists

Known for his piercing eyes and chiseled bone structure, Lee Van Cleef was a Spaghetti Western star who appeared in over one hundred and fifty movies and is most famous for his role as the villainous outlaw, Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Born in New Jersey, Van Cleef performed in various regional theater productions before making his first feature film appearance in the Oscar-winning Western, High Noon.
After being in a major car accident, Van Cleef sustained serious injuries and his career started to decline but in 1965, Italian director, Sergio Leone, offered him the co-lead role in For a Few Dollars More alongside Clint Eastwood. He continued to work with Leone appearing in all the Dollar Trilogy films and also starred in other Spaghetti Westerns including Death Rides a Horse, The Grand Duel, and Day of Anger.

5Gary Cooper

Will Kane in High NoonImage via United Artists

Gary Cooper was a silent Western film star who was known for his strong and quiet on-screen persona that symbolized the ideal American hero. Cooper initially started his film career as an extra and stunt rider before earning more substantial roles and by 1927, he appeared in his first lead roles in two Westerns; Arizona Bound and Nevada. He was one of few stars who successfully transitioned into the Talkies and reached pinnacle star status after releasing his first talking picture, The Virginian.
By the 1940s, Cooper expanded into other genres starring in classic movies such as The Pride of the Yankees and Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, while continuing to appear in Westerns. Out of all of Cooper’s Western films, he’s widely remembered for his iconic performance in the Western film, High Noon, which earned him his second Academy Award win for Best Actor.

4Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford sitting at a table in handcuffs in 3:10 to YumaImage via Columbia Pictures

Glenn Ford could draw and fire a gun in 0.4 seconds and was credited as the fastest gun in Hollywood beating out even The Duke and Gunsmoke star, James Arness. At 6 years old, Ford and his family moved from Canada to California where he first started acting in high school productions and working in small theater groups after graduation. He eventually signed a contract with Poverty Row studio, Columbia Pictures, and appeared in his first Western, Texas, co-starring William Holden and Claire Trevor.
RELATED:The 10 Best Westerns Of All Time, According To Rotten Tomatoes
Ford starred alongside Randolph Scott in John Ford’s Western, The Desperadoes, and soon earned lead roles in other famous Westerns including The Americano, The Fastest Gun Alive, and the iconic film,3:10 to Yuma co-starring Van Heflin.In 1978, Ford was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma for his significant influence and contribution to the Western genre.

3Randolph Scott

Randolph Scott in Western UnionImage via 20th Century Fox

Randolph Scott starred in dozens of comedies, dramas, and horror films, but he’s widely credited for his on-screen image as the tall-in-the-saddle Western hero. In the mid-1920s, Scott made his way from Virginia to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and eventually found work as an extra and minor player in various films including John Ford‘s The Black Watch and The Virginian.
He earned his first major role starring in Paramount’s 1932 film, Heritage of the Desert, which established him as a Western star. Scott went on to star in other Westerns such as The Desperadoes, Western Union, and The Nevadan and made his final film appearance in the 1962 Western, Ride the High Country. In 1975, Scott was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and also received a Golden Boot Award for his extensive work in the Western genre.

2Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood holding a rifle in UnforgivenImage via Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood initially found success starring in the Western television series, Rawhide, but due to the terms of his contract, he wasn’t able to work with any other American studio. When his Rawhide co-star, Eric Fleming, turned down the lead in an Italian Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, the role was offered to Eastwood who accepted thinking it would be a nice change from his routine.
Eastwood’s performance as the Man with No Name made him an international star and is considered to be the actor’s signature character. The success of A Fistful of Dollars brought Eastwood more roles and went on to star in both Westerns and non-Western films like Dirty Harry and Kelly’s Heroes. He made his directorial debut with the 1971 psychological thriller, Play Misty for Me, and also produced a string of iconic modern Westerns including The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven which earned him his first Oscar win for Best Director.

1John Wayne

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The SearchersImage via Warner Bros.

When it comes to Westerns, there isn’t a movie fan out there who doesn’t immediately think of John Wayne. Born in Iowa, Wayne grew up in southern California and never intended to become an actor, but after an injury cost him his football scholarship at USC, he was hired as a prop boy by John Ford. Wayne soon started taking on minor and extra roles before his breakthrough performance in Ford’s classic Western, Stagecoach.
Wayne’s frequent Western roles established him as an American icon as well as one of Hollywood’s most exceptional leading men. His collaborations with Ford including The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, andShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon are considered to be some of Wayne’s greatest Westerns.He won his one and only Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 Western, True Grit, which he reprised for a sequel, Rooster Cogburn.

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John Wayne

John Wayne’s Explosive Encounter Standing Up for a Young Marine Against Heckling USC Students Inspired ‘The Green Berets’

The Green Berets actor John Wayne had an abundance of respect for those who put their lives on the line for the United States. This certainly became apparent in his movies, but it also bled into his personal life. Wayne once confronted some USC students heckling a young marine, which led to The Green Berets.

John Wayne plays Col. Mike Kirby in ‘The Green Berets’

John Wayne as Col. Mike Kirby in 'The Green Berets' in a military uniform holding a gun

John Wayne as Col. Mike Kirby | Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

The Green Berets follows a cynical reporter named George Beckworth (David Janssen), who is against the Vietnam War. However, he is sent to cover the conflict and must tag along with a group of Green Berets. He meets a tough man named Col. Mike Kirby (Wayne), who leads the team through a top-secret mission. They intend to kidnap an important enemy commander, but nothing is as simple as it seems.

The Green Berets is a financially successful Wayne feature, but it didn’t settle as well with critics. The pro-war messaging offended a lot of reviewers. Nevertheless, his fan base continues to celebrate the passion that the actor had for veterans and the country overall.

John Wayne’s explosive encounter with USC students inspired ‘The Green Berets’

Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend takes a look at how The Green Berets came to exist. He explained that the “genesis” of the movie comes from an encounter that the actor had on the USC campus. The actor was on the college grounds to discuss a benefit for a children’s hospital and saw some students protesting the Vietnam War. However, an incident really got his blood boiling.

“What got my goat was that these students were heckling a young marine, a corporal, who was going by and heading for his car,” Wayne recalled. “He walked with his back straight as a rod, and he wore his uniform with pride. Then I noticed that where his right arm should have been there was only an empty sleeve which was neatly folded and pinned back.”

Wayne continued: “Turned out he was one of the Ninth Marine Brigade which were the first ground troops America sent to Vietnam. He had a chest full of medals and ribbons and said his drill instructor had taught him to ignore impolite civilians. He said, ‘You don’t give them the satisfaction of noticing them.’ I waved to him as he drove away.”

“And my blood was boiling,” Wayne said. “I ran over to the students and I was just so angry, I drummed my fists into their goddamn table and I said, “You stupid bastards! You stupid fing a**holes! Blame Johnson if you like, blame Kennedy. Blame Eisenhower or Truman or fing goddamn Roosevelt. But don’t you blame that kid. Don’t you dare blame any of those kids. They served! Jesus, the kid lost his arm. I mean what the hell is happening to this country?”

The actor wanted the movie to be ‘as American as apple pie’

John Wayne in The Green Berets. While visiting the troops in Vietnam, he was given a silver friendship bracelet presented by a Montagnard Strike Force unit. He wore the bracelet the rest of his life. More on his travels to Vietnam here: https://t.co/Kd7G2koaw7 pic.twitter.com/RNeiToDZEx— John Wayne Official (@JohnDukeWayne) December 30, 2018

Eyman continued that the first “concrete sign” of Wayne’s The Green Berets was a letter written on December 29, 1965. The actor wrote to director George Stevens expressing his interest in making a feature film about the Vietnam War. He knew that Stevens’ son worked for the government and would need their help to make this picture possible.

“It will have the scope, integrity and dignity required by the subject matter,” Wayne wrote. “Our film about the exciting new unit fighting in Vietnam will be as American as ‘apple pie’ and as harshly against the ‘beard and sandal’ brigade as possible.”

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John Wayne

John Wayne Shouted a Gay Slur to Describe Kirk Douglas’ Costume Choice

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas didn’t see eye-to-eye throughout their time in the entertainment industry. They disagreed on politics, but it went farther than that point. Nevertheless, Wayne and Douglas ultimately were able to put their differences aside to work on a project, even though it originally got off to a rocky start.

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas co-starred in ‘The War Wagon’

John Wayne as Taw Jackson and Kirk Douglas as Lomax in 'The War Wagon' sitting on horseback in cowboy uniforms

L-R: John Wayne as Taw Jackson and Kirk Douglas as Lomax | Bettmann via Getty Images

Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend tells the stories of the legendary actor and those around him, including his co-stars. Wayne starred in a Universal movie called The War Wagon with Douglas. Wayne wanted Rod Taylor, but the studio overrode his decision and cast Douglas instead “for $300,000 plus 15 percent of the gross after break-even until he got a total of $675,000. After, he got 10 percent of the worldwide gross.

The War Wagon director Burt Kennedy explained how he was having a difficult time with Wayne hand-picking him. It didn’t help that the actor massively intimidated the director.

“The only reason The War Wagon was a hard time was that Duk started me,” Kennedy said. “[He] picked me up off the street. Kirk Douglas said in his book that I was afraid of Duke. Hell, everybody was afraid of him.”

John Wayne shouted a gay slur to describe Kirk Douglas’ costume choice

John Wayne: The Life and Legend explained how The War Wagon production didn’t start off on a great note. Actors Wayne and Douglas certainly didn’t get along when Douglas showed up on the set with a costume that included a “flamboyant ring worn over a black leather glove.” Eyman stated that this was his attempt at stealing the scene and acted as a test for the director.

However, Wayne wasn’t willing to play around with Douglas. He suddenly shouted a gay slur about him to Kennedy, telling him that if they didn’t get him off the set, he would quit the picture immediately. The director wanted to make peace, so he obediently spoke with Douglas. He said, “Don’t you think the ring is a little much, Kirk?” The actor responded, “No, I think it’s just fine. What do you think?”

Wayne responded to Douglas, “It’s great, just great.” He had no issue with shouting at Kennedy but had some reservations about shouting at actors on the same level as him. Wayne ultimately sidled up to Douglas and asked, “You’re going to play it in that effete fashion?”

“John, I’m trying not to let my effeminacy show,” Douglas responded.

The actors later shared a volatile relationship

Eyman touched on the fact that Wayne and Douglas had a complicated relationship. However, they were ultimately able to work together, despite their differences. Nevertheless, there was always a tension between the two.

One of the primary signs of this is how Douglas always refused to call Wayne “Duke,” which his friends and colleagues always called him.

Their performances ultimately did well for The War Wagon. The movie opened to favorable reviews, especially praising Wayne and Douglas for their performances.

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John Wayne

John Wayne and Steve McQueen Peed on a ‘Wall or Curtain’ Together Backstage at the Golden Globes

Actors like John Wayne and Steve McQueen are icons that continue to represent the movie industry to this day. Their cultural mark on entertainment will never disappear from the history books or the minds of their fans. Additionally, Wayne and McQueen certainly won’t be forgotten by the individual who had to clean their pee off the wall or curtain at the Golden Globes.

Steve McQueen and other movie stars respected John Wayne

Writer Jeremy Roberts interviewed McQueen’s biographer, Marshall Terrill. He wrote several books about the actor, including both his career and his personal life. Terrill wrote about his opinions of several movie stars, including Wayne. He had a great amount of respect for him. Not all actors felt the same way, but Hollywood as a whole respected the impact that he had on their field.

McQueen and Wayne had a friendship that also carried away from the glamor of Hollywood. This is true with several folks in Hollywood, including his frequent collaborator, John Ford. In particular, he loved playing Bridge with anybody willing to join him.

John Wayne and Steve McQueen peed on a ‘wall or curtain’ together backstage at the Golden Globes

John Wayne & Steve McQueen sharing a laugh at a party in 1969. Did you see our Instagram Stories from yesterday? Find out how Duke reacted when a young fan wrote in and confused him with Steve McQueen 😂 pic.twitter.com/HfxHutOdPQ— John Wayne Official (@JohnDukeWayne) September 6, 2019

Roberts asked Terrill to expand on how Wayne and McQueen got along. He explained that McQueen had a great amount of respect for the Duke. He recalled a hilarious story between the two actors when they both were set to present at the Golden Globes.

“I remember hearing a story most recently from Barbara Minty McQueen,” Terrill said. “She was looking over pictures in Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool and spotted the two pictures of McQueen and Wayne. She chuckled and then told me this great story.”

Terrill continued: “She said the two legends were at an awards ceremony in the 1960s and were either presenters or co-presenters. They were hanging out backstage, waiting to go on, when Wayne didn’t feel like going to the restroom or there wasn’t enough time to find a restroom, and so Wayne took a leak against a wall or curtain.”

However, McQueen didn’t object to Wayne relieving himself there. Rather, he decided to join in.

“She said that Steve started laughing and joined in, also relieving himself. Barbara said Steve remembered the encounter with a huge smile,” Terrill said.” After we both finished laughing, I said, ‘Oh, why did you have to tell me that story after the book was published?’”

The Duke regularly attended award shows

Wayne and McQueen are both widely celebrated actors who attended many award ceremonies, including the Golden Globes and Oscars. Wayne regularly presented awards and honorary awards, which were met with thunderous applause.

However, he also nearly stormed the Oscars stage to pull off actor Sacheen Littlefeather for making a speech in place of Marlon Brando. It took six security men to hold him back and he ultimately made statements after the ceremony to express his frustration at the situation.

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