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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.
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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 heartbreak after pleading for one last film before death: ‘Hope to hell I do’

The crowning moment in his acting life came in 1970, when he earned his only Academy Award for Best Actor, as a result of his role in True Grit.

But one project that sadly never made it to life was Beau John, a film Wayne hoped would be his last.
Author Scott Eyman, who wrote ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’, discussed what Wayne wanted the project to be like, as well as the confession he made before he sadly passed away.
Eyman noted that Wayne’s wish was made at the end of 1978, just under a year before the western icon died in June.

Wayne reportedly felt directionless without any film work as he’d spent the last years in recovery with health issues as opposed to being behind the camera.
That year, Wayne received the Utah Film Festival’s John Ford Medallion, though he was unable to travel due to his health.
Instead, friend and director Peter Bogdanovich went to accept the award on his behalf, and when the pair were reunited Wayne asked if he’d consider the film he proposed.
Bogdanovich said: “It’s kind of a half-western thing, it’s not cowboys and Indians, you know, it’s — oh, the humour and the wonderful relationship between this grandfather and the son and the son-in-law and the grandson.
JUST IN: John Wayne was buried at unmarked grave with a beautiful message

“Wayne said, ‘I hope to hell I live to do it. Just a wonderful story’.”
His friend reassured Wayne he’d do the project, were he alive long enough to commit to it, and in his later life it became the Oscar winner’s main focus in life.
As he grew even more ill, Wayne then proposed the project to director Ron Howard, though he didn’t want anyone but the dying star to be in it.
According to the book, Wayne told Howard: “I found a book. I think it’s a movie. It’s you and me or it’s nobody.”

John Wayne died in 1979

John Wayne died in 1979 (Image: GETTY)

But sadly for Wayne, he died before anything could be done to start the movie.
Howard added: “It never got past the verbal stage.
“And at that point, he was showing signs of not being well. I was a little doubtful.”
Wayne passed away in 1979 as a result of stomach cancer, and was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach.
His legacy was secured when the American Film Institute chose him as one of the greatest male stars of classic American cinema.

He was among a select group of stars who managed to negotiate their way from the silent film era of the Twenties, into the talkies that followed.
He had seven children in total, and was married three times.

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John Wayne

John Wayne battled crippling injuries and heartbreaking loss on Rio Lobo set

The sight of The Duke thundering across The West on horseback remains one of cinema’s most indelible images.
Meanwhile, “Get off your horse and drink your milk” has frequently been attributed as one of John Wayne’s most famous ‘quotes.’

Despite some claims that it came from an advert he shot, it is actually almost certainly an urban myth, most likely started by comedians doing drawling impressions of the Hollywood Westerns legend.
Sadly, though, by the time the star came to film 1970’s Rio Lobo (a blatant remake of Rio Bravo) towards the end of his career, he was in so much pain struggled to get on and off his horse.
In fact, the entire film shoot was surrounded by personal tragedies for the actor.
DON’T MISSJohn Wayne revealed his own three favourite films from his career

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

John Wayne starred in Rio Lobo
John Wayne was in agony in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY )

It was director Howard Hawks’ final film and the third film he made with John Wayne about a beleaguered sheriff standing against outlaws.
In a 1971 interview Hawks said of Rio Lobo: “The last picture we made, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’
“He said, ‘Good, I’ll be all ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I told him the story. He never even read it, he didn’t know anything about it.”

Famously, when Wayne realised it was a remake of Rio Bravo and El Dorado, he quipped: “Yes, he said, ‘Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

Hawks was less jocular after the film bombed and blamed it on 63-year-old Wayne being too old and out of shape for the role.
Critics and audiences agreed and the film took just over $4million against a production budget of $6million plus all the extra promotional costs which are often the same again.
Wayne’s physical difficulties were not due to his age, however. He had piled on weight for 1969’s True Grit and then while filming The Undefeated the same year, The Duke fell from his horse and fractured three ribs, leaving him unable to work for two weeks.
Later in the shoot, he tore a ligament in his shoulder. With no movement in one arm, he had to be filmed only from the other side.

John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo
John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

Wayne came into Rio Lobo in considerable pain, out of shape from True Grit and still suffering from a torn shoulder.
Most of his fight scenes had to be filmed with stand-ins or carefully from restricted angles. Some fights even happened off-camera. And he struggled greatly getting on and off his horse.
He also suffered two devastatimg personal blow when his mother died during filming and then his younger brother Robert E. Morrison lost his battle with lung cancer the month after filming ended.
But there was one shining moment of happiness also.

John Wayne in True Grit
John Wayne in True Grit (Image: GETTY)

Always a dedicated workhorse on set, no matter the physical injuries or personal pains, Wayne took a rare break from filming.
He had a very good reason, since it was to attend the 1970 Academy Awards. After exactly 40 years on screen, The Duke finally won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit.
Touchingly, when he returned to the Rio Lobo set, he was greeted by the cast and crew all wearing eye patches like True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn.

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John Wayne

Ann-Margret recalls ‘gentle’ and ‘welcoming’ John Wayne who did her a big favour

Legendary actress Ann-Margret turns 80-years-old today on April 28, 2021. The singer, dancer and performer made quite the name for herself in Hollywood in a number of films during the early 1960s, including Bye Bye Birdie and State Fair. She is perhaps best known for her epic performance in 1964 hit Viva Las Vegas alongside Elvis Presley, with whom she shared a passionate love affair. Shortly after working with the King, she joined wild west star John Wayne in his 1973 movie The Train Robbers.

Ann-Margret played the lead in the movie – one of her first lead roles – Mrs Lowe.

The story followed her character after her husband had been killed, leaving her half-million dollars.
Mr Lowe had acquired this money from robbing banks in the wild west, however, she was keen to return it to the government to clear her name. John’s character, Lane, had different ideas. He wanted her to help find the money and claim a reward for it.
Ann-Margret recently gave an interview about her time on the silver screen, where she touched upon working with the legendary John.

Ann-Margret continued: “He was so great with my parents. So absolutely welcoming and gentle with them. And anybody who was great to my parents was on a throne in my eyes.
“I was friends with him forever. He was never [pretentious]. He had so many friends and every single person loved him.”
Ann-Margret also previously praised John for doing her an enormous favour in her time of need.
During the filming of The Train Robbers, Ann-Margret was up for an Oscar alongside her co-star Ben Johnson.
However, considering Ann-Margret was filming in Mexico she was struggling to find a way to attend the ceremony.
Without a second thought, John gave her and Ben his own private plane to allow them both to attend the ceremony.
Ann-Margret said later: “The next day, we were back on the set, and Ben had won and I hadn’t.
“I don’t know what Mr Wayne said to Ben, but he got me in a corner, and he just said some wonderful things to me.”
Ann-Margret also spoke candidly about her relationship with Elvis.
The pair enjoyed a relationship together for just over a year while filming Viva Las Vegas.

Speaking in the same interview, Ann-Margret said: “Just thinking about Viva Las Vegas, or anytime someone mentions it, I smile.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. George Sidney, who directed Bye Bye Birdie also directed Viva Las Vegas. And believe it or not, I had never seen [Elvis] perform.”

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