Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 2—Filling Out the Top Ten
For the top five, see our post Shooting Stars, Part 1.
6. Joel McCrea [Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo, Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian (1946), Four Faces West, Ramrod, The Oklahoman, Colorado Territory, The Outriders, Frenchie, Stars in My Crown, Cattle Drive, Saddle Tramp, The San Francisco Story, The Lone Hand, Black Horse Canyon, Border River, Wichita, The Tall Stranger, Gunsight Ridge, The First Texan, Stranger on Horseback, Trooper Hook, Cattle Empire, Fort Massacre, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Ride the High Country, etc.]
For current audiences, McCrea can be the most underestimated actor on this list. In the early stages of his career during the 1930s he made all kinds of movies. By 1939, when he made Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock and Union Pacific with Cecil B. DeMille, he was a significantly bigger star than John Wayne, and he was about to appear in brilliant comedies with such directors as Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story) and George Stevens (The More the Merrier). He had always made some westerns, but by the late 1940s, like Randolph Scott he began to concentrate almost entirely on the genre. His quiet demeanor projected a basic decency, even when he was playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory). Neither he nor Scott worked with the very greatest directors of westerns of their time until very late in their careers, but McCrea did have a productive relationship with director Jacques Tourneur (Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita). He appeared in the first of Andre de Toth’s two best westerns (the underrated Ramrod) as well.
McCrea had his own ranch, and he always described himself in his tax returns as a rancher. He and Scott were among the very best riders in westerns, and he always looked like he knew what he was doing on a horse. (Watch him in Colorado Territory and Gunsight Ridge, for example.) His very best western was also Randolph Scott’s best, and the last significant western for both of them: Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. McCrea’s unbending Steve Judd is remembered for his resonant line in that film: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” He does, always playing it straight on.
7. Randolph Scott [Heritage of the Destert (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1936), The Texans (1938), Frontier Marshal, Western Union, Jesse James, Virginia City, When the Daltons Rode, The Desperadoes, The Spoilers (1942), Belle Starr, Belle of the Yukon, Gunfighters, Abilene Town, Badman’s Territory, Trail Street, Albuquerque, Coroner Creek, Return of the Bad Men, The Doolins of Oklahoma, Fighting Man of the Plains, Santa Fe, The Walking Hills, Sugarfoot, The Cariboo Trail, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Man Behind the Gun, Thunder Over the Plains, The Bounty Hunter, Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, Man in the Saddle, The Nevadan, Colt .45, Fort Worth, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Tall Man Riding, Rage at Dawn, 7th Cavalry, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Westbound, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Ride the High Country, et al.]
At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the top male movie star at U.S. box offices—not because he appeared in big blockbusters, but because his lower-budget and sometimes formulaic westerns played well in rural America. Like Joel McCrea, he had always done some westerns (Last of the Mohicans , Frontier Marshal, Jesse James) but in the 1930s he played a wide range of roles. In larger-scale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), he tended to play an unusually principled semi-bad guy who didn’t get the girl because he died before the end of the movie.
By the late 1940s, he had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns, much like Joel McCrea. Also like McCrea, he seldom worked with top-flight directors during this stage, although he worked frequently with Andre de Toth (The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City) and Lesley Selander (Tall Man Riding). There were always some very good westerns (Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Bounty Hunter) among the more formulaic work. He would not be nearly this high on the list except for an amazing burst of great work near the end of his career with two great directors—Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Scott’s last film).
With his courtly North Carolina accent, his riding ability, his weathered good looks as he aged and his ability to project stern rectitude, Scott just needed the right team to work with and was lucky enough to find it in the last seven years or so of his career. In the 1950s and Ride the High Country, look for him wearing his trademark worn leather jacket, often riding his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust, who always went uncredited. In the sheer number of westerns he made, he’s remarkable, and most of them, even the formulaic ones, are pretty watchable.
Kevin Costner is the youngest actor on this list, and he hasn’t made that many westerns. But of his four westerns, three of them are on the list of 55 Great Westerns and the fourth (Wyatt Earp) is a notable addition to the impressive list of westerns telling the Wyatt Earp story. Like Robert Duvall, he has both been lucky and has chosen well when selecting his movie roles in westerns. Like Clint Eastwood, he has been unusually successful in directing himself in westerns (Dances With Wolves, Open Range).
Costner has always connected well with the western sensibility. His first large-scale film role was as the scapegrace younger brother Jake in Silverado, adept with two guns, physically restless and gymnastic but impulsive. He next showed up as both director and principal actor in Dances With Wolves, with its extraordinarily long running time. This was the first western in more than 60 years to win the Best Picture Oscar. He went on to work with Lawrence Kasdan again in the interesting but not-entirely-successful Wyatt Earp, and finally to direct himself and Robert Duvall in Open Range. In fact there are those who would say that many of his films are westerns regardless of their supposed settings: the futuristic Waterworld and The Postman, for example, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with his abominably American accent in the title role. On the down side of his career now, he may not make more westerns, but he has been extraordinarily successful in those he did make.
9. Henry Fonda [Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, The Return of Frank James, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Tin Star, Warlock, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, How the West Was Won, The Rounders, Firecreek, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Cheyenne Social Club, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Nobody, Welcome to Hard Times]
With his All-American looks, demeanor and speaking voice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Henry Fonda was a superb actor. Yes, he did seem to be playing a version of himself as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and in The Ox-Bow Incident, but those are carefully-edited versions. After service in World War II, he played it more laissez-faire as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (possibly the best Wyatt Earp on film) and much more tightly wound as the martinet Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache. His version of outlaw Frank James, played in two films (Jesse James, The Return of Frank James), may also be definitive.
In the first half of his career, he worked with some great directors: Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James), John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache), William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), and Anthony Mann (The Tin Star). After the excellent Warlock (1959), his career in westerns went into a long, slow fade, although he was usually worth watching. The most notable of his westerns in the post-Warlock period is probably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays (effectively) against type as a remorseless, blue-eyed killer. After that, he took what he was offered, including the occasional spaghetti western, but the era of great westerns was fading along with his career. Fonda’s career arc, normal for his time, demonstrates by comparison why John Wayne was so unusual in his ability to produce the occasional great western even at the end of his life.
10. Glenn Ford [Go West, Young Lady, The Desperadoes, Texas, The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold, The Redhead and the Cowboy, The Man from the Alamo, The Violent Men, 3:10 to Yuma, The Fastest Gun Alive, Jubal, Cowboy, The Sheepman, Cimarron (1960), The Rounders, The Last Challenge, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, Day of the Evil Gun, Santee]
Canadian-born actor Glenn Ford was a very durable and versatile leading man, beginning in the early 1940s. Among his earliest westerns were Texas (1941), where he was paired with William Holden, and The Desperadoes (1943), with Randolph Scott, before he left for service in World War II. Upon his return, he made his mark with several movies in the new film noir genre (see especially Gilda , for one classic example). But he also moved back into westerns (The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold), showing that he was not afraid to play against his generally wholesome image. Indeed, in one of his very best westerns (the original 3:10 to Yuma) he plays outlaw chieftain Ben Wade, making the unlikable more attractive, and being attracted to the code of good guy Van Heflin more than he expected.
Some of his best work during this middle period of his career was done with the excellent director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Cowboy), who obviously liked working with him. He fought Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith (The Violent Men), and spent a whole movie trying not to fight Broderick Crawford (The Fastest Gun Alive). As film noir faded in popularity, he was sometimes cast in romantic comedies (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and military comedies (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water, Imitation General), and he brought some of that restrained comedic talent to the westerns The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear as well. If given a choice, through the 1950s and 1960s, he always wore the same beat-up hat, which was looking pretty disgusting by the early 1960s. The remake of the western epic Cimarron (1960) with director Anthony Mann and Ford in the lead didn’t really work well, but that wasn’t Ford’s fault.
His later career followed an arc similar to Henry Fonda’s, where the quality of the westerns he was offered declined. As he played out his string (The Last Challenge, Heaven With a Gun, Santee), he often effectively played a kind of father-figure. But the scripts weren’t as good, and the popularity of westerns as a genre was fading generally.
To continue the list, see Shooting Stars, Part 3.