Iconservation Restoration: Clint Walker, Cheyenne

Written By: Greg Howell - Dec• 27•16
06_06_actor_clint_walker_014

Clint Walker, “Cheyenne”

Prior to 1955, seeing a man’s masculine torso on the television screen occurred in the flash of an eye.  A glance downward at a spoonful of mashed potatoes from mom’s Swanson TV dinner, and the moment was easily missed. No rewind and no replay, the breathless, ribald moment lost from casual eyes. For millions, full of secret mental whispers and unspeakable desire, holding stabbed fork with salisbury steak and beef gravy, found themselves in a netherworld momentarily frozen in time, anticipating if the shirtless male god would return to the screen.

It never happened, of course. The concept of male idolatry could not pass muster on staid, early television networks.  The TV male as intentional sex symbol was non–existent. Desi Arnaz’ latino swaying hips aside, and essentially, mysteriously non-threatening to programmers, male objectivity simply did not exist prior to 1955.  Television shows featured policemen that looked like cleaned up neighbors on church pews, and cowboys that sported hidden faces under deep hats and mysterious masks.

obrianarness

Hugh O’Brien and James Arness

Until Cheyenne!  In actuality, the three first adult westerns on television premiered within weeks of each other in September of 1955. Gunsmoke, featuring James Arness, and The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp with the debonair  Hugh O’Brian, both featured smoldering, handsome male leads. It was hulking Clint Walker in Cheyenne that spun television male objectivity into a new realm. Indeed, Cheyenne Bodie was the epitome of classic machismo. Warner Brothers first leap into television production with Cheyenne, and the seasoned film studio knew how to draw an audience. Walker, when clothed, was usually tailored in tight pants and shirts created to define every inch of Walker’s 6 foot 6 inch physique. When in various states of undress, which occurred 1 out of every 4 episodes, the camera literally caressed  Walkers 48″ chest (buried in a forest of black, mossy hair), his 32″ waist, and bulging biceps. Cheyenne was shirtless so often that legends bloomed that it occurred in every episode! Bathing, drying, shaving, dressing, even blacksmithing, or mining, the vagabond cowboy hero seemed to find ample opportunities to rip his clothes off, particularly in the first 3 or 4 seasons.

And with a dash of irony, considering the growing female audience for the western, shirtless Cheyenne would often and quickly cover himself with the nearest towel or fabric swatch as a woman entered the scene.

Perhaps the most extraordinary mystery of Cheyenne is the overt homoerotic imagery within the show.  Cheyenne Bodie is the Atlas of the wild west, holding the entire future gay cowboy iconography and stereotype on his broad shoulders. The perfection of male personified, the lone, soft-spoken wanderer in the West, never settling down or finding that female mate, Clint Walker’s Cheyenne perhaps is the very reason the gay stereotype exists, if not in the least perpetuated.

Not that the presentation of Cheyenne in that vein was intentionally homoerotic, as few of the Warner Brothers stable of players, writers, directors or producers are known to have much history for it–the exceptions being, of course, Marlon Brando and James Dean.  Yet it is so indelibly obvious to the modern eye (and to so many hormonal gay teens of the 1950’s and 60’s), one can only wonder the intent. Certainly the high ratings translated to big business for Warner Brothers, yet it difficult to believe even the 1950’s people were that innocent!  As Don McGregor, writer for Comics Bulletin, points out . . .

In “The Trap”, Cheyenne is forced into slave labor. Life may be tough for the rest of the prisoners, but Cheyenne has the attention of the slaver’s wife, as well as a second beautiful woman, just to complete two triangles. Cheyenne does not just kiss his horse in an episode like this … [Cheyenne is] the target of the obsession…

In “Land Beyond the Law”, the well-explored territory of the place where bandits congregate and hide out for a price becomes one of the most homoerotic TV episodes I have ever seen. There is no doubt watching James Griffith’s performance here as Andrew Duggan’s bodyguard, that his loyalty and attraction is not toward the women, but for Duggan. Don’t take my word for it, check it out.  I have no idea how they got away with this…

BDay03bSpeaking of The Trap, for example, while the story is built around the lust of two women, the sheer visual surprise of shirtless, sweaty Cheyenne, as he dares to break away from his boundaries of slavery, lift another, shirtless, handsome wounded man, and carry him in his arms off into the distant light outside of the mineshaft tunnel is nothing short of visually stunning.  The symbolism of bondage, dark mines, shafts, slavery, and tunnels have proliferated gay erotica for centuries, but not before on television. And truthfully, rarely even in cinema in such a positive, heroic light.

Cheyenne ran for 8 seasons, and made a big star of Clint Walker.  The series was the very first hour long western and the first successful hour long continuing drama. The show single-handedly moved Warner Bros. into television.  Walker’s sensitive, yet masculine portrayal of Cheyenne Brodie was decades ahead of its time, and won the show a Golden Globe in recognition of the character. His portrayal of a white man raised from childhood by the Cheyenne Indians was spot-on, and numerous episodes dealt with the continuing lack of respect given our fellow Native-American citizens.

After the series ended, Walker would star in many films, including several classic westerns.  His impact on the direction of television was immediate.  In television westerns, the handsome, erotic cowboy become a staple.  The list of others that carried on the tradition of Cheyenne is long, and includes Burt Reynolds in Gunsmoke, Clint Eastwood in Rawhide, Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, Robert Fuller in Laramie, Ty Hardin in Bronco, Lee Major’s in The Big Valley, and Robert Conrad in The Wild Wild West. Walker’s iconic image even carried to other television genres, as the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s began to feature similarly rugged (and often shirtless) heroes in police and detective series, also featuring homoerotic iconography. Starsky and Hutch, Alias Smith and Jones, The Dukes of Hazzard, Magnum, P.I., Vega$, and more recently by Christopher Meloni in Law and Order: SVU, say hello and thank you to your maker, Clint Walker!

 

 

 

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.