The Most Unforgettable Characters of Western Films and TV Of All Time

Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, Bonanza

When you think of leading characters in Western TV shows and films, this larger than life character, was endearing, warm and often goofy. Hoss Cartwright’s physical comedy, added a perfect character balance to his family of Sierra Nevada cowboys.

Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke

He’s undoubtedly the Western archetype. For his twenty-year run on TV Western Gunsmoke, James Arness as Matt Dillon was the epitome of law and order, sometimes forgiving, sometimes harsh, always fair. The impressively tall marshal of Dodge City, was a reserved man of few words. Marshal Matt Dillon preferred taking action rather than talking. As the star of television’s longest-running drama, he was practically indestructible.

Jim, the “Waco Kid”, Blazing Saddles

When we first meet him, he’s hung-over. With such a rocky introduction, it’s clear that Gene Wilder’s character is going to be anything but conventional here. The epitome of confident, he’s intelligent, soft-spoken, and not afraid to smile. Raising more than pistols, Jim keeps us entertained with a constant onslaught of one-liners written by the comic genius of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor.

Miss Kitty, Gunsmoke

She has to be mentioned. This queen of the small screen was a Western saloon girl turned businesswoman, was always decked to the nines in larger than life outfits, thick lashes, and her bright red coiffure. No matter her profession, she added style to the rough-and-tumble world of Dodge City and the Old West.

Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

John Wayne is arguably the master of Western film, and one of the most celebrated Hollywood actors of all time. Among a plethora of captivating roles, Rooster Cogburn could be his most quintessential performance, and the one that finally got him a long overdue Oscar. This hard-drinking, tough one-eyed marshal was larger than life, and a hero.

The Man With No Name, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie”, the Man With No Name, truly takes the cake for being one of the most recognizable symbols of Westerns, to date. This film as all about the mood, and “Blondie” definitely managed to fill the screen with his the weight of his brooding presence. His handsome, tanned, weather-beaten features and sobering demeanor have been engraved on the hearts of millions of fans.

Doc Holliday, Tombstone

Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday in Tombstone captured the essence of Western film. He was the god guy, that you didn’t want to get on the bad side of. It was a truly compelling performance, so much so, that then-President Bill Clinton even expressed his appreciation. Doc Holliday is not the film’s lead, yet it can be said that he’s its most triumphant hero.

Annie Oakley, Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley is the best in her game. Has anyone else looked quite so natural twirling their pistols? Gail Davis boldly defied what it meant to be a leading actress on television. An experienced rider and excellent shot, Davis brought a substantial amount of talent, when taking on this coveted role. She even insisted on doing her own stunts.

Sgt. Cordell Walker, Walker, Texas Ranger

Raised by his Native American uncle, Walker was relatable to millions because of his status as a positively-portrayed Vietnam War veteran. Chuck Norris brought to the part his own invincibility in martial arts, adding a new element of lightning-fast moves previously unseen in Westerns.

The Lone Ranger, The Lone Ranger

Whether galloping through radio, comics, films, novels, or cartoons, the Lone Ranger has become one of the most celebrated figures of the Western genre. He’s best remembered for the 1950s television series with its William Tell Overture opening. An only survivor after an attack on his fellow Texas rangers, The Lone Ranger was saved by ever-faithful Tonto.

Lucas McCain, The Rifleman

Chuck Connors was The Rifleman‘s main man, and provided viewers with hours of entertainment. He was one of television’s first representations of a single parent, let alone a lone dad. McCain opted to use violence and his excellent marksmanship skills as a last resort. He not only fought the stifling conditions in his New Mexico frontier town, but he also delivered a message of fairness and tolerance, all while lovingly parenting his son.

Rowdy Yates, Rawhide

Rowdy Yates lived up to his name. He never liked to play by the rules. Rowdy Yates was the television role that launched Clint Eastwood‘s career.Far more outspoken and less gruff and cold than Eastwood’s film roles, Rowdy Yates was appealing and approachable. He even played guitar and sang. Though Gil Favor was the lead of the series, it’s Rowdy and his occasional friction with his boss that we all remember.

Pike Bishop, The Wild Bunch

After a career living beyond the reaches of the law, he’s weary and grizzled, and has spent a long career evolving to be concretely devoid of morality.Riveting in his brutality, Pike Bishop commands an unstoppable gang of seasoned criminals towards his final hurrah. Continue reading to find out who else from your favorite characters made our list.

Miss Eula Goodnight, Rooster Cogburn

There’s no getting around it: the Western genre is primarily dominated by men. And with none other than John Wayne as your co-star, it’s a challenge to stand out. But who better to deliver a performance defying the status quo than Hollywood empress Katharine Hepburn herself? She’s a murdered preacher’s daughter on a quest for justice. Unshakably stubborn and confident, Miss Eula refused to be talked down to, and would never be called on a bluff. Neither age nor assumptions about her gender could keep her back. The Duke may finally have met his match.

Dr. Michaela “Mike” Quinn, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

Dr. Quinn was one of the most innovative and unique Western characters ever. Dr. Quinn began the series suddenly thrust into being a stepmother, and continued to struggle against heartbreak, disease, and sexism in Western times. When actress Jane Seymour became pregnant, it was only natural that her character Dr. Quinn, a capable woman, would be able to handle the plot change.

Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West

Charles Bronson as Harmonica- wow. This is a man who murdered his older brother when he was a child. Rarely has a musical instrument been so thrilling, wielded by this dark horse of Sergio Leone’s epic.

Marshall Will Kane, High Noon

Gary Cooper’s career-defining performance as Will Kane was unintentionally adopted by each side of the political equation to fit their worldview. Devoted to his wife (Grace Kelly) but equally devoted to facing the menace of his outlaw archnemesis, Kane is a complex, conflicted character. Kane’s iconic stance even appeared as a poster to encourage voters to choose the Solidarity party towards the end of Communist rule in Poland.

Butch Cassidy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

This is a difficult pick — how do you choose between two strong leading men of Hollywood? When it comes down to it, it has to be Paul Newman who steals the show, commanding the title role opposite Robert Redford. Butch Cassidy wallows in the grimy splendor of every vice in the Old West, and we not-so-secretly can’t get enough of it. He’s the dangerously clever, wicked genius who makes you question your morals as you want him to win, even while he wreaks havoc.

Trampas, The Virginian

Though the series was named after the mysterious unnamed foreman of Shiloh Ranch, fans most remember the mischievous farmhand Trampas. His character underwent a series makeover from being a villainous scoundrel in the 1902 Western novel upon which the show is based. Providing comic relief and a boisterous counterbalance to the show’s more taciturn star, Trampas was referred to only by his surname. Through his friendship with the eponymous lead character and his various romantic pursuits, he added a lighthearted warmth to the Wyoming frontier.

Vin Tanner, The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven is so fabulously studded with stars that it’s practically a who’s-who of our favorite early 1960s actors. And even if Yul Brynner clad in black is this Western’s lead, it’s Steve McQueen as his right-hand man who is inescapably cool. Believe it or not, McQueen’s wife remarked in an anecdote that he had intentionally got himself in a car accident in order to attain the part. As he vies to capture the viewer’s attention over his co-stars, McQueen oozes wry wit and swagger.

Fred C. Dobbs, Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Just show him your stinkin’ badge already! Taking the Western genre south of the border to the rush for gold in old Mexico, Humphrey Bogart’s outstanding performance as Fred Dobbs smeared us with the grit and grime of tougher times. He’s a down and out underdog with an inner fire and complete obsession with finding fortune. Dobbs had a hot temper and an unquenchable drive in his dogged quest for riches. More often than not, he’s his own worst enemy.

Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, The Wild Wild West

Thirty years before Will Smith put it on the big screen, this genre-defying and unconventional show broke with Western norms. Of all the villains that James West and Artemus Gordon had to face, no one captured the imagination as uniquely Dr. Loveless. He was the right blend of quirkiness and technological know-how, a mad scientist dropped into the Western age. With just a handful of appearances on the show, he nevertheless managed to win over fans, and cunningly thwart his enemies’ plans.

“Little Bill” Daggett, Unforgiven

So he won Best Picture and Best Director for this Western film, but you’ll forgive us if we take a moment to talk about someone who’s not Clint Eastwood. Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, presenting himself as collected and orderly. But as we get to know his character, he swiftly sheds his genteel exterior and lets his true psychopathic nature shine through. He’s ruthless, and irrepressibly dangerous. Hackman’s Oscar is testament to the fact that we had never before seen a cowboy quite so terrifying.

1st Lt. John J. Dunbar, Dances with Wolves

This was the most successful Western film in history. Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning performance as John Dunbar, who receives the honorific Dances with Wolves, is as epic and sweeping as the circumstances surrounding him. He’s the former Union Army officer who’s accepted by the Lakota people. Dunbar goes through a mental and physical process of learning, growth, and acceptance. Critically important for attempting to give a voice to Native American peoples, all too often maligned and stereotyped in Westerns, this role led to Costner being accepted as a member of the Sioux Nation.

Ethan Edwards, The Searchers

We would be remiss if we only mentioned John Wayne once. And this performance, a story of soul-searching, the transformation of a character, stands alone. Few films have dealt so directly and fundamentally with the issue of bigotry in Westerns. Edwards is extensively complicated. Obliged to confront his own hatred when he finds his long-lost niece, abducted and raised by the Comanche people, Edwards has become fractured by his search. His is a portrait of a haunted veteran of war, who will complete his task and yet remain incomplete.

Tommy Lillard, The Frisco Kid

Several years before, he’d got his front teeth knocked out on the set of Gunsmoke. While Harrison Ford was staying busy between his first two Star Wars appearances, he delivered this unforgettably unique performance in the zany The Frisco Kid. In this juxtaposition of cultures, gruff but kind-hearted bank robber Tommy Lillard ends up in a most unusual journey, accompanying a Polish immigrant rabbi on his way to San Francisco. Charming with his sly demeanor and piquant twang, it’s a reminder that no matter the genre, Harrison Ford is Hollywood royalty.

Bret & Bart Maverick, Maverick

It had the elements, but this was not your usual Western. They came, they drew cards, they conquered. Inspiring an entire era of card players, these savvy poker shark brothers were slick, sly, and accented by Bart’s flair for drama and Bret’s rich sense of humor. Unlike other leading cowboy types on television, they were perpetually trying to play it safe even while taking risks. They could be cunning, but had an undeniable moral core. Above all, it’s their screen-filling charisma that makes this pair classic.

Kid Shelleen, Cat Ballou

In an era of television defined by Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian, the musical Cat Ballou was a film that skewered the tropes of the Western genre that had already become clichés. Staggering and stumbling into this parody is its decidedly unconventional antihero, Kid Shelleen. Lee Marvin’s dual role as the pickled drunk buffoon Shelleen and his villain brother earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. We were just as wide-eyed as Jane Fonda when we realized we’d have to put our hopes on a grubby man asleep on a horse.

Curly McLain, Oklahoma!

Who knew passions could run so high out on the plains? Onstage or in the 1955 Oscar-winning film, any list of favorite Western characters would be incomplete without this sweeping musical and its romantic lead, dashing cowboy Curly McLain, as he pursues the affections of Laurey. The living, breathing example of a rugged “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain”, Curly is irresistibly endearing. He’s the kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein lead you just can’t help but root for in his quest to win over the girl of his dreams.

Laura Ingalls, Little House on the Prairie

Even if the main character was the father of her Western pioneer family, how could you not adore his standout daughter, Laura? As devoted fans tuned in to this show for its long run, they were treated with watching Laura grow up from schoolgirl to wife and mother. As adorable as she was easy to relate to, Laura was a tomboy with a vivacious spirit that could not be tamed, and she infected viewers with her enthusiasm. She came to symbolize the pastoral innocence of youth in the Great Plains.