We honor valiant heroes charged with keeping the peace on the small screen.
Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, along with his oft-at-odds deputies Branch Connally and Victoria “Vic” Moretti, is back for a new season of the hit series Longmire, having moved from A&E to Netflix. The trio of Absaroka County officers follows a long tradition of TV lawmen, each with their own approach to securing the wild streets of Western towns. Here are some of the best from TV seasons past and present, as well as a few that should never be allowed to wear a badge again.
SHERIFF WALT LONGMIRE
Longmire | 2012 –
The first thing you notice when chatting with actor Robert Taylor, the grizzled star of Longmire: He certainly isn’t full of himself. Tell him you enjoyed watching his series’ first season, and he’s likely to reply: “Oh, thanks. I knew someone was watching. You must be the fellow.”
And if you try to convince him that, no, really, lots of folks — including scads of Cowboys & Indians readers — viewed the episodes that aired last year, he’ll simply shrug and respond: “Ah, must’ve been nothing else on, I suppose.”
All of which sounds in keeping with Longmire executive producer Hunt Baldwin’s admiring description of the Australian-born actor. Robert Taylor — no relation, by the way, to the old Hollywood screen idol of the same name — is “like someone in the Gary Cooper mold,” Baldwin marvels. “He is deeply humble and respectful of other people — but at the same time, he has so much power and confidence. That’s an unusual mix.”
Based on the popular series of western-detective novels by Craig Johnson, Longmire focuses on the professional and personal crises stoically endured by Walt Longmire, longtime sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. While searching for an actor capable of filling the demands of the lead role — and the expectations of several thousand loyal readers — Baldwin tested dozens of actors. But he didn’t feel he’d found what he was looking for until he viewed an audition video Taylor had made on his own in his native Australia.
“It wasn’t unusual for me to do something like that, because I’m in the middle of nowhere,” Taylor says. “I just went over to a buddy’s place and put down a couple of scenes.”
The actor was more than a little surprised when, scarcely a month later, he was summoned to Los Angeles for a meeting with Baldwin. “As soon as Robert walked through the door,” Baldwin says, “we could see that he’d really, really embody [Walt Longmire]. Some of it, I admit, is really superficial. I mean, finally, here was a guy who walked into the room who was just a big bear of a man, with this deep subwoofer of a voice. His physical presence alone told us, ‘OK, this guy’s in the ballpark.’
“But once he began to read the scenes, he caught on to the character’s soulfulness and quiet humor. One of the key things we found so hard to find for someone playing Walt was humility. And Robert is not a guy who comes in with a lot of swagger.”
For his part, Taylor says he could immediately relate to the character. “I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say I’m like Walt,” he says. “So it’s not the qualities that we have in common so much as the qualities in him that I admire. And his faults, I think, are just human faults.”
Truth to tell, Walt lets his temper get the better of him on a few occasions. And he’s not exactly the sharing type when it comes to inner turmoil. Then again, the audience was more than willing to cut the guy some slack throughout season one. After all, right from the get-go, Walt had to deal with emotional scars left by his beloved wife’s death as well as the often humiliating reality of campaigning for reelection against a younger opponent (one of his own deputies, no less).
“I like the fact that even though all this stuff has happened to him, he just refused to unburden himself on anyone else,” Taylor says. “He just sucked it up and carried on.”
Katee Sackhoff, who appears opposite Taylor’s character as Deputy Vic Moretti, is also a fan of the taciturn character — and the actor who brings him to life.
“I think one of the main reasons why people view Longmire as a modern-day western is that Robert Taylor brings this kind of unspoken strength and grit to the show that you don’t see on television a lot. And it’s sort of funny because well, he’s an Australian playing this sort of western hero,” Sackhoff says. “But he is absolutely brilliant. And there is nobody else who could play the role.”
MARSHAL WYATT EARP
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp | 1955 – 61
When you’re debating the stature of the men who wore a star in history and fiction, Wyatt Earp will always make the list at least once, and perhaps as often as three times. Hugh O’Brian’s portrayal in the long-running The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp series is as charismatic and memorable as the most popular film portrayals by Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, and Kurt Russell. O’Brian led viewers on a six-year journey from Wyatt’s first lawman jobs in Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas, to his most famous one in Tombstone, Arizona, culminating in a five-episode arc depicting the famed O.K. Corral gunfight.
MARSHAL MATT DILLON
Gunsmoke | 1955 – 75
One of the benchmarks by which all television lawmen will be measured, Matt Dillon kept the streets of Dodge City safe for 20 years. More, if you count the television reunion movies that followed the series’ remarkable run of 635 episodes. James Arness, given a challenge few actors will ever face, kept one character interesting to audiences for two decades. If Matt wasn’t quite as fast on the draw in the later years, his core values never wavered. Unfortunately for Miss Kitty, neither did his aversion to matrimony.
MARSHAL SAM MCCLOUD
McCloud | 1970 – 77
The best part of nearly every McCloud mystery was when New Mexico Marshal Sam McCloud would follow a case into an urban environment like Manhattan, and all the streetwise, hard-boiled New York cops would scoff at his cowboy hat and sheepskin coat. And then McCloud would solve the case before they could finish their doughnut break. The cowboy in the big city story has never been told better than in these sharply written whodunits.
SHERIFF ANDY TAYLOR
The Andy Griffith Show | 1960 – 68
There’s a reason why Andy Griffith’s passing was so deeply felt by generations of TV fans, who treasured their visits to Mayberry as an escape from a real world that seems to move faster and less prudently with each passing year. Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor was a calm, reassuring presence in an idyllic small town where there was always hot apple pie on the windowsill and fish biting in the pond.
DEPUTY SHERIFF RICK GRIMES
The Walking Dead | 2010 –
Sure, Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp kept the streets of their towns safe, but they never had to contend with a zombie apocalypse. Somehow this small-town deputy sheriff manages to stay one step ahead of the undead while also dealing with his wife’s infidelity and a best friend’s betrayal. A western for Generation Wii, The Walking Dead is based on a comic book of the same name and has managed to strike quite a chord — the season three finale on AMC was the most-watched drama series telecast in basic-cable history.
RANGER CORDELL WALKER
Walker, Texas Ranger | 1993 – 2001
What is it they say about Chuck Norris? He once ordered a Big Mac at Burger King and got one? He frequently donates blood to the Red Cross — just never his own? Crop circles are his way of telling the world that sometimes corn just needs to lie down? The master of the roundhouse kick found a role perfectly suited to his Zen-like quiet warrior persona and dispatched nine seasons of assorted bad guys without ever seeming to break a sweat.
MARSHAL DAN TROOP
Lawman | 1958 – 62
In the midst of a prime time era dominated by western series, Lawman lasted four years without a gimmick. Remember when good scripts and a talented cast were enough? As Marshal Dan Troop, John Russell had one of those faces that looked like it was carved from marble, and his unbending, no-nonsense manner (reputedly modeled after an officer he knew in the U.S. Marine Corps) may have some viewers wondering if he actually was a sculpture come to life. But he moved quickly when he had to, which was once about every three episodes. The Gunsmoke parallels are obvious here — Troop even had his own Miss Kitty in Miss Lily (Peggie Castle), who ran the town saloon.
MARSHAL JIM CROWN
Cimarron Strip | 1967 – 68
Thursdays in 1967 proved too tough a trail for this short-lived but impressively mounted western, set in the border region between Kansas Territory and Indian Territory. Viewers who opted for Batman and Bewitched missed an epic opening credits sequence, brilliantly underscored by an Aaron Copland-esque theme that ranks with the medium’s best. Everything about Cimarron Strip was grand and cinematic, from its 90-minute running time to Stuart Whitman’s rugged, self-assured portrayal of Marshal Jim Crown. He was one man patrolling 10 million acres, and no one ever doubted he was up to the task. The series was canceled after just 23 episodes. CBS tried to relaunch the show with a prime time run three years later, but viewers still weren’t interested.
DEPUTY MARSHAL RAYLAN GIVENS
Justified | 2010 – 15
Raylan Givens is not what you’d call a “bring ’em back alive” type of peace officer. Based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, he’s a Stetson-wearing, ex-coal-mining, son of a two-bit criminal who has plenty of deadpan attitude and the quick draw to back it up. After killing a mob hit man, he is reassigned from Miami to his hometown in rural Kentucky where he’s forced to face off with a childhood friend-turned-criminal mastermind and the father he thought he’d left behind. His mood didn’t improve much over the series, but that’s how Justified fans like their deputy marshals — laconic, but deadly.
SHERIFF RALPH LAMB
Vegas | 2012 – 13
Vegas was a mob town in the 1960s, but don’t tell that to Sheriff Ralph Lamb. From 1961 to 1979, he kept the guys in the pinstripe suits from turning the Strip into a shooting gallery. Vegas (which sadly lasted but a season in TV’s cutthroat ratings-centric landscape) may have been a fictionalized account of Lamb’s tenure, but it never strayed too far from events as they happened. The real Lamb, like Dennis Quaid in the series, preferred riding horses to squad cars and knocked a few hoods through doors when a message needed to be sent.
From the August/September 2013 issue.