The late, great crooner rode tall alongside the likes of John Wayne and James Stewart.
Dean Martin — whose 100th birthday we celebrate June 7 — may not be anyone’s first choice as an iconic cowboy hero. But the late, great multitalented entertainer proved to be a dependable player in several westerns throughout his long career. Here are seven of his best.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Martin earned his spurs as the hard-drinking deputy of John Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance in Howard Hawks’ much-imitated, rarely equaled classic western. It’s a tense, straight-shooting drama, but Hawks allows time for some musical comedy relief as Martin’s character sings a couple of tunes with Sheriff Chance’s other two allies: a crotchety and crippled old coot (Walter Brennan), and a naïve young gunslinger with a decidedly non-cowboyish coiffure (Ricky Nelson).
Sergeants 3 (1962)
A loose remake of George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939), with the basic plot transported from British India to the American West. Martin, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford star as brawling U.S. Cavalry sergeants assigned to an Indian Territory outpost in 1870, and Sammy Davis Jr. appears as a trumpet-playing former slave who dreams of becoming a trooper. The action sequences are every bit as exciting as you’d expect in a movie by the same director — John Sturges — who gave us The Magnificent Seven (1960).
4 for Texas (1963)
Veteran filmmaker Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) directed this free-wheeling western comedy, set in Galveston, Texas, about two rival couples — Martin and Anita Ekberg, Frank Sinatra and Ursula Andress — who must join forces to save their gambling boat from a corrupt banker (Victor Buono) and a murderous outlaw (Charles Bronson). Believe it or not, The Three Stooges also figure into the action.
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Martin is reunited with Rio Bravo co-star John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s enduringly popular and surprisingly influential western about brothers who reunite for the funeral of their saintly mother — and uncover new clues in the mystery of their father’s violent death. Wayne (as John Elder) and Martin (Tom Elder) are joined by Michael Anderson Jr. (Bud Elder) and Earl Holliman (Matt Elder) as the avenging siblings. Decades later, filmmaker John Singleton freely admitted to using this movie as a template for his own Four Brothers (2005).
Rough Night in Jericho (1967)
And now for something completely different: Martin is effectively cast against type as the villain of the piece, Alex Flood, a lawman gone bad while taking over the Wild West town of Jericho. George Peppard plays the unlikely hero, a lawman-turned-gambler who risks everything to take on Flood after he falls for the beautiful owner-operator (Jean Simmons) of a stagecoach line.
Five Card Stud (1968)
As much a murder mystery as a traditional western, director Henry Hathaway’s offbeat drama has Martin cast as Van Morgan, an honest cowpoke who tries, and fails, to stop fellow poker players from lynching a card shark they catch cheating. Months later, Morgan returns to the scene of the crime after hearing that members of the lynch party are being murdered, one by one. Among the likely suspects: Nick Evers (Roddy McDowell), one of the lynch-party instigators, and Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum), a hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher.
Martin teams with James Stewart in director Andrew V. Laglen’s action-packed shoot-’em-up. After Mace Bishop (Stewart) saves his brother Dee (Martin) from the gallows, the brothers and their gang high-tail it out of town with a hostage: Maria (Raquel Welch), the beautiful widow of a wealthy rancher Dee shot during a robbery. Truth to tell, Maria never thought much of her husband, so it’s not long before she’s sweet on Dee. Trouble is, they’re pursued by a relentless sheriff (George Kennedy) who’s a-hankering to claim Maria for his own.