Clint Walker Was Cheyenne and That Was Enough
In the music game, Clint Walker would have been what we call a one-hit wonder.
Walker, who was 90 when he died Monday at his California home from congestive heart failure, acted in dozens of movies and television shows over several decades.
But only one made the charts: Cheyenne, which ran from 1955 to 1963 on ABC. Walker played Cheyenne Bodie, the tall, brooding, sometimes irritable hero who was in the starting lineup for early television’s golden age of Westerns.
Cheyenne was one type of classic American cowboy: the restless, troubled loner who couldn’t seem to find peace. He lived with an elusive, wistful melancholy we all recognize, a long sigh at sunset.
Yet at the same time he had an unerring moral compass. He knew right and wrong, and when things got real, he always came down on the side of right.
For kids growing up in the 1950s, this confirmed everything we were told about America. However rough we might be around the edges, however mean things might get, in the end there would be justice.
We later found out things were a little more nuanced than TV and movie cowboy portrayals suggested. But 60 years later it remains easy to understand why a whole lot of Americans would love to go back to that mythical age.
A second thing we ’50s kids didn’t realize quite yet is that TV cowboys like Cheyenne — or his colleague Matt Dillon over on Gunsmoke — were largely cloned from the film cowboys most prominently embodied by John Wayne. That wasn’t a problem. They were just new to us.
And then there was a third thing we didn’t know: that what we saw on a screen often had a backstory. In the case of Clint Walker, that turned out to be as ragged and tense as any situation Cheyenne found himself in.
After three seasons Walker walked out, seeking renegotiation of the rather unfavorable contract he initially signed in 1955 as a little-known actor with no leverage.
The producers responded by replacing him with Ty Hardin, who became the new Cheyenne until Walker and the studio worked things out and suddenly Cheyenne was Walker again. (Hardin got his own show, Bronco.)
Walker was concerned that he was becoming stereotyped, though, and that he had explored about all there was to explore about Cheyenne, so he more or less grumbled his way through the last few years of the show. Being under contract, that was about all he could do.
And none of that mattered to us kids who were watching. We didn’t read the trade papers. We didn’t have Twitter threads about Clint Walker’s fight with the studio. All we knew is that every couple of weeks there’d be a new Cheyenne, and we loved watching it.
Sometimes less information is more, which come to think of it might be something else worth getting nostalgic about.
In any case, Walker — like Cheyenne — was right about the big stuff.
He did have a lousy contract that didn’t fairly compensate him for his role in making Cheyenne a lucrative hit.
And he did get stereotyped.
While Cheyenne was a top-20 TV show he made several movie Westerns, including The Yellowstone Kid with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. They performed modestly.
After Cheyenne, Walker’s biggest success came in the ensemble film The Dirty Dozen. He never found another breakout role, though he worked regularly for the next 15 years and returned for a few quickies in the ’80s and ‘90s.
None of his screen work got as much attention as his 1971 real-life ski accident, in which a ski pole pierced his heart and a doctor miraculously was able to save his life.
Clint Walker eventually dropped from public view. But one-hit wonders are no less revered because they never had a second hit, and speaking of hits, there was one other memorable thing about Cheyenne: its theme song.
TV theme songs were great then, and if you grew up in the ’50s you won’t need any accompaniment to sing this one:
Cheyenne, Cheyenne, where will you be campin’ tonight?
Lonely man, Cheyenne, will your heart stay free and light?
Dream, Cheyenne, of a girl you may never love
Move along, Cheyenne, like the restless cloud up above.
The wind that blows, that comes and goes, has been your only home.
But will the wild wind one day cease and you’ll no longer roam?