12 wonderful character actors who turn up in every TV Western

This dirty dozen deserves the same recognition as the stars.

They had distinctive faces and distinctive names. Names like Chill, Cactus, Denver and Dabbs. They were grizzled and gravel-voice — men you could believe lived in the Wild West. Sure, stars like Steve McQueen, Dennis Weaver and Clint Eastwood made for cool cowboys, but TV Westerns would be nothing without a cast of character actors.

The 1950s and 1960s were a good time to be an actor with equestrian skills. The television schedule was chockablock with Westerns. In 1959, there were 26 Westerns on the three major networks. That's a lot of saddles to fill. There were dozens and dozens of veteran performers and hopeful newcomers who popped up in these shows. Heck, Gunsmoke alone had to cast 635 episodes. 

We could have made a massive list of character actors from that era. Instead, we picked 12 of our favorite. You can spot them in just about any show on MeTV with sheriff.

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1. Noah Beery, Jr.


The nephew of Oscar winner Wallace Beery, Noah Jr. scored a couple of regular roles in his career, notable as a clown alongside young Micky Dolenz on Circus Boy and as James Garner's father on The Rockford Files. In between, he was seen in Rawhide, Wagon TrainWanted: Dead or Alive, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and more, typically a warm-hearted fellow.

2. Harry Carey, Jr.


Not to be confused with the famous Cubs announcer, this Harry Carey logged more than 90 Westerns in his resume. He was a particular favorite of Have Gun - Will Travel, which used him in 12 episodes. He grew up on a ranch as a child, earning the nickname "Dobe" for his adobe-colored hair, and even learned to speak Navajo. No wonder he appeared so comfortable onscreen, playing everything from sheriff to nogoodnik.

3. Royal Dano


Lean and rangy, Royal Dano showed remarkable range as an actor, playing everything on the spectrum between cowardly criminal and Abraham Lincoln. Walt Disney personally selected Dano to voice Honest Abe, and the actor is perhaps now best known for playing the great President. Still, he could be just a mesmerizing in a wicked role, too.

4. Jack Elam


Due to his lazy left eye, which was the result of being stabbed in the face with a pencil as a child, Elam typically found himself typecast as an old coot or crazed criminal. But he was brilliant in those roles, equally adept at comedy and menace.

5. Shug Fisher


A member of the Sons of the Pioneers, a singing group that appeared in numerous Roy Rogers films, Shug worked in everything from Tom and Jerry cartoons (as the voice of Uncle Pecos) to The Dukes of Hazzard. He shows up a handful of times on Gunsmoke as Obie, a well-dressed barkeep at the Oasis Saloon and occasional boxing referee.

6. Paul Fix


Fix is best remembered as Marshal Micah Torrance in 150 episodes of The Rifleman. He also has a small part in Star Trek lore as the first medical man seen aboard the Starship Enterprise, as he portrayed Dr. Mark Piper in the series' second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," before Bones joined the crew. Elsewhere, he was District Attorney Hale on Perry Mason, Thad's dad on Gunsmoke, Commander Kronus on Battlestar Galactica, and a bit player on seemingly every other Western.

7. Dabbs Greer


The first person ever saved by Superman on Adventures of Superman, Greer most often appeared on Gunsmoke, playing shopkeeper Wilbur Jonas, the man who supplied Miss Kitty with her wonderful wardrobe. He frequently played a minister, too. In fact, he had the honor of overseeing the marriages of both Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mike and Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch. Late in his career, Greer playing the old version of Tom Hanks' character in The Green Mile.

8. I. Stanford Jolley


Though his roots were in vaudeville, Jolley found his calling in countless Westerns. With his long face, sunken eyes and pencil-thin mustache, the actor could play both an imposing villain or authority figure.

9. Cactus Mack


Cousin to actors Glenn Strange and Rex Allen, Cactus Mack had his roots in the Arizona musical scene. He can be seen in a whopping 48 episodes of Gunsmoke, though mostly in the background, silently sipping a drink or standing in a crowd. However, in his final appearance on the show, he at last got a meaty part, playing an old man simply named "Pa" in season seven's "Marry Me." His high and raspy voice added even more character to the role. Too bad he couldn't land more speaking roles. Likewise, he went uncredited on many other Westerns. But with a perfect name like Cactus Mack, he deserves a salute.

10. Strother Martin


In Cool Hand Luke, Martin delivered one of cinema's immortal lines, declaring, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." A former swimming and diving champ, he moved to Hollywood to first lend his expertise in the water. However, he soon found himself in front of the camera, in dusty towns like Dodge City. He played a mentally challenged man Cooter in a memorable early Gunsmoke, seen here, and remained a regular presence through the late-1970s.

11. Denver Pyle


Pyle, perhaps the second-most-famous television actor with "Denver" in his name after Bob Denver, should be familiar as both Briscoe Darling, Jr., from The Andy Griffith Show and Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard. But he was on just about every show with a horse, playing characters that exuded mountain wisdom.

12. Chill Wills


Ironically named "Chill" because he was born on a scorching hot day, Wills also honed his skills as a musician, singing in the Avalon Boys. Later, he voiced the beloved Francis the Talking Mule in a series of hit films. His deep twang landed him onscreen, too, in Trackdown, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, and many other shows.



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Walter_Kurtz 16 months ago
Chill Wills' birth name was Theodore Childress Wills. So the nickname Chill is a shortened version of his middle name. Born in Texas in mid-July, so yes it was likely hot, but that is not where the name Chill came from.
Ogn_Dulk 25 months ago
Morgan Woodward! Deep voice, pockmarked face
TijuanaSlim 35 months ago
I think Beery's episode of Wagon Train (or one of them) just ran last weekend n METV... I caught a glimpse of him while channel surfing.. and wouldn't you know it, there he was 2 channels later too...

it actually had me pondering about how prolific some character actors can be... bit of serendipity to see a list like this soon after
Dstuart101 40 months ago
Jack Elam was one of my father’s favorite character actors. He was in a TV show once where he wore striped pants (maybe more than one episode). Daddy nicknamed him “Striped Britches”. Even my daughter calls him that when she sees him on an old TV show! He was a real gem. One other one I would include was Myron Healey. He was a handsome man, but always had a menacing role.
CouchPotato19 53 months ago
I can hardly tell one guy from the next in these old Westerns. Never was my favorite genre.
Diz 54 months ago
Bruce Dern also popped up on a lot of Westerns (as well as other dramas).
texasluva 54 months ago
John Anderson another that comes to mind.
Tombstone Territory
Cimarron City
The Californians
U.S. Marshal
Yancy Derringer
Man Without a Gun
The Rough Riders
Have Gun - Will Travel- 3 episodes
Black Saddle
Overland Trail
Law of the Plainsman
Wanted: Dead or Alive
The Rebel
Johnny Ringo
The Man from Blackhawk
The Westerner
Stagecoach West
Zane Grey Theater -4 episodes
Bat Masterson
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp - 6 episodes
Tales of Wells Fargo -3 episodes
Ride the High Country
Laramie-6 episodes
The Rifleman - 11 episodes
The Big Valley
Bonanza-3 episodes
The Virginian - 6 episodes
Gunsmoke -12 episodes
Death Valley days and more
Plus Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents , Voyage to the bottom of the Sea and 100's more not Western
Open eyes Magoo MeTV
robkl57 texasluva 35 months ago
Yes! Excellent choice! And what a fine actor.
AlF 54 months ago
Wish I could have met Noah Beery, Jr. Likable in every role ever. Genuine smile. Saw him recently in an older version of "Walking Tall".
MrsP58 54 months ago
#7: Dabbs Greer played Reverend Alden on 76 episodes of Little House on the Prairie, plus a couple related TV movies, over the course of several years. You didn't even mention it.
MarkSpeck MrsP58 54 months ago
And in the second episode of The Invaders, "The Experiment", he was a sinister minister who was the episode's main alien.
MaryDavis 54 months ago
I loved them all. They were great actors and I love to watch them on reruns now!
Lacey 54 months ago
It is funny but when students want to become "actors" they only think of Tom Cruise or Scarlett Johansson. None of them ever see a career like these fine ACTORS all had.
Cyn_Finnegan 54 months ago
You forgot to mention Chill Wills' memorable co-starring role as Drago in "McLintock!".
JeanInTN 54 months ago
You also left out Jim Davis, who played the patriarch Jock Ewing on Dallas. I have seen him playing guest and supporting roles in a number of old westerns.
MarkSpeck JeanInTN 54 months ago
In the Streets of San Francisco episode "The Hard Breed", where they're investigating a murder at a rodeo event, Davis appears along with two actors on this list, Noah Beery Jr. and Harry Carey Jr.
Washington 54 months ago
Old time comic Tom Kennedy was often seen in crowd scenes in Rifleman and Bonanza. Paul Fix can be seen in Our Gang's Free Eats playing a crook in a drag role.
Mac2Nite 54 months ago
All great! But you left out John Anderson... he was on almost every drama/western series imaginable from The Rockford Files, Zane Grey Theatre, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Laramie, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Virginian, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Californians, Johnny Ringo, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Trackdown, The Big Valley, Tales of Wells Fargo, Lawman, Legend of Jesse James, Emergency!, The Incredible Hulk, Rat Patrol, The Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Man Without a Gun, Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, Once an Eagle, Rich Man, Poor Man Book II, Overland Trail, The Tall Man, Backstairs at the White House, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dallas and MacGyver [where he had a recurring role as Mac's grandfather, Harry]...just to name a few ;-) The first release of the 1993 soundtrack album, "Music from the Television Series Quantum Leap", was dedicated to him. He was featured in the fourth season episode of The Last Gunfighter as Pat Knight, which had first aired about six months before his death.
daDoctah Mac2Nite 54 months ago
And of course most people would recognize him as Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (not a lot of actors get to play the same regular character on two shows both running at the same time).

Always felt he should have put in an appearance on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD as the father of or a time-travelled older version of Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson. They look so much alike.
Lacey daDoctah 54 months ago
AND on two different networks.
AlF daDoctah 54 months ago
I could swear Oscar Goldman was Richard Anderson, because MacGyver was billed as Richard Dean Anderson to avoid copying. I could be wrong...
GoUTVols1961 AlF 54 months ago
You are correct.
MarkSpeck AlF 54 months ago
Richard Anderson played Oscar Goldman. He was just as prolific as John, perhaps more. Hard to find an action series from the '60's or '70's that Richard didn't appear on.
texasluva Mac2Nite 54 months ago
Oh you beat me to it. I should have read the others he he. Congrats!
FrankCollins 54 months ago
Paul Fix was also a good friend of John Wayne, and in fact was his acting coach. IMHO, the Westerns (and other early TV shows) played the same character actors over and over way too much.
Jon 54 months ago
I can only recall seeing Harry Carey, Jr. in "Back to the Future: Part III", where he, Pat Buttram, and Dub Taylor played 3 old cowboys in the 1885 town saloon.
jholton30062 54 months ago
Noah Beery Jr. was also in "Riverboat" with Darren McGavin. I think that was Burt Reynolds's first TV role.
MarkSpeck jholton30062 54 months ago
Yep, it was the first TV series for Reynolds. Apparently, he and McGavin didn't get along. McGavin allegedly beat the crap out of him in a fight off-camera.
DonBolyard 54 months ago
You forgot to mention that Dabbs Greer was on Little House.

lifelinx DonBolyard 54 months ago
He oversaw Almanzo & Laura Wilders' wedding in Little House, too.
ETristanBooth lifelinx 54 months ago
Actually, they didn't get married in Walnut Grove, and Rev. Alden wasn't there.

( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0633038/mediaviewer/rm1273378816?ft0=name&fv0=nm0831147&ft1=image_type&fv1=still_frame )

However, he did perform the last 2/3 of Mary & Adam's wedding.
pga007 54 months ago
Why would you leave out Strother Martin's role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? That is a BIG omission.

Jon pga007 54 months ago
I first remember seeing Paul Fix in the TZ Season 5 episode "I Am the Night, Color Me Black". This is also the first show where I remember seeing George Lindsey before I knew of him as Goober.

I remember when Strother Martin hosted SNL in 1980, late in his life. By the time the show was rerun in summer, he'd died.
Mac2Nite pga007 54 months ago
I think they were specifically referencing their guest starring roles on TV...
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