My new Verizon FiOS service includes the Encore Western Channel. What a great place to spend an evening! In addition to movies, they fill some slots with old western TV shows. Last night I watched "Cheyenne" and "Have Gun, Will Travel," two of my all time favorites.
Cheyenne Bodie, played by Clint Walker. Where does he live? He is always riding from town to town, fixing all kinds of problems, and apparently living on handouts. He has no luggage, no job, and only one shirt to his name. Last night he was hired by a cattleman's association for something, but when he got to the town, the safe had been robbed and they had no money to pay him.
He says, "Oh, that's all right. I'll go back the way I came." On the way back, he found the gang and recovered the money, but I guess you saw that coming.
To bring this back to Bit Actors, Lee Van Cleef (1925 - 1989) played the bartender, in a fairly small part. I thought this may be an early role in his career, so I looked it up. Van Cleef has over 170 roles starting with High Noon in 1952 as his first movie. The episode I saw last night was ten years and 117 roles later!
In that same episode were other established actors and actresses including Don Beddoe (1891 - 1991) who played in more than 280 roles, Robert Karnes (1917 - 1979) with 174 roles, and Steve Brodie (1919 - 1992) with over 160 roles.
In "Have Gun, Will Travel" at least Paladin lives in a hotel in San Francisco, not that he is ever there. Paladin is played by Richard Boone (1917 - 1981) and this episode, called "Lazarus" was one of the humorous ones.
Again, I was rewarded with a familiar face, Strother Martin (1919 - 1980). Martin has 164 credits listed on IMDb and this was his 75th role. He was more established than Van Cleef, probably because he exudes a more colorful character in his acting. Van Cleef is just plain bad.
Early on, Strother Martin was in The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, A Star is Born in 1954, and Strategic Air Command in 1955. He went on to play the mine owner in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. He really made a good living as a regular on many TV shows.
I suppose the black and white aspect of westerns in the first few decades of TV is what makes them easy to watch. Not that they were filmed in black and white, but that they only show right and wrong, battling it out. You could write an entire blog on the Bit Players in TV westerns! Take a look at the complete cast lists for any of them that lasted more than two years.