Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

When Philip Morris, and their ad agency, Leo Burnett, came up with the Marlboro Man in the 1950s, they hit advertising gold. In response to a government study linking smoking to lung cancer, Philip Morris sought to create a niche for men who were unconcerned about cancer. The rugged Marlboro Man campaign was an instant success, vaulting Marlboro cigarettes from a market share of 1% to the fourth largest selling brand in less than a year. Why the huge response to this now iconic figure? Because smokers in the 1950s, like me, grew up idolizing cowboys and wanting to be like them. The Marlboro Man epitomized not all cowboys, but the strong, silent type who squinted a lot and let their actions speak for them. They were the men who touched the brim of their Stetsons when a lady passed, who never drew first in a gunfight, and who, in short, won the American West. These men were my idols, even as I grew into manhood.

In the 1950s, the Lone Ranger ruled. He had some good momentum on television from the radio drama that ran from 1933 to 1954. I was glued to my radio at 7:30 pm eagerly anticipating the latest adventures of the masked man and his faithful companion, Tonto. I love modest heroes and the Lone Ranger was as modest as they come. He never stuck around to receive the thanks of the people he helped, but instead left a silver bullet to remember him by. He never killed any bad guys but miraculously shot the guns from their hands. He was also friendly with the local Indians who everybody hated because they objected to the white man stealing their land. There were many actors who played the Lone Ranger on radio and TV, but I know the true Lone Ranger was Clayton Moore. He had the look, the voice, and the assured presence in the saddle that sent all other pretenders packing.

Another legendary cowboy in the strong, silent mold was James Arness, star of the hit TV series, Gunsmoke. As Marshall Matt Dillon, Arness patrolled the streets of Dodge City in the days of the wild, wild West. The Marshall knew how good he was with a gun, but never flaunted his skill. If anything he was reluctant to get involved in high noon showdowns unless there was no other way. He did his best to reason with the bad guys, but unlike the Lone Ranger, when Matt was forced to draw his six-shooter, he played for keeps. Marshall Dillon was ably assisted by his limping deputy, Chester, and wise old Doc Adams. The love interest on the show was Miss Kitty, owner of the Longbranch Saloon. For some reason it took the Marshall way too long to romance Miss Kitty. Maybe he knew she had been around the corral a few times. Gunsmoke was also a popular radio show with WIlliam Conrad playing Matt Dillon. I suspect that I am the only living person who remembers that.  

If I had to pick a more contemporary cowboy hero, it would be Clint Eastwood. Clint played Rowdy Yates on the hit Western TV series Rawhide, but his most memorable strong, silent roles came in the "spaghetti westerns" of the Sixties and Seventies. Classics like "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" made a star of Eastwood and launched him into the limelight as the new anti-hero of the old West who didn't always play by the rules. With his flat slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, a cigar stub clenched in his teeth, and a Mexican serape slung over his shoulder, Clint put the fear of God into the black hearts of outlaws before even drawing his gun or casually flipping a lighted stick of dynamite in their direction. Eastwood's steely-eyed cowboy soon morphed into perhaps his most favorite character, the tight-lipped Dirty Harry Callahan of the San Francisco P.D. He went on to star in and direct a string of hit movies and is now one of the respected elder statesmen of Hollywood.

There are others like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Joel Mccrea who have played the role of the strong, silent cowboy. Me and most guys I grew up with identified with these men and were the ones who went out and faithfully bought Marlboro cigarettes the minute the Marlboro Man rode into our living rooms.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

1 comment:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Miss Kitty around the corral a few times!!?? Darn, another fantasy gone with the wind!