Before there was Joe Kidd or Josey Wales, even before there was a Man with No Name, there was Rowdy Yates.
The young trail herd ramrod on the CBS Western series “Rawhide” was the character through which Clint Eastwood made his first big impression on a national audience. The lanky,sandy-haired, easygoing Yates was aimed at drawing female viewers, while the tough, no-nonsense, baritone-voiced trail boss Gil Favor (played with effectively commanding presence by Eric Fleming) was there for the guys to cheer on.
When “Rawhide” debuted on Jan. 9, 1959, with Frankie Laine singing the Ned Washington/Dmitri Tiomkin-penned theme song over the opening credits, it quickly became apparent that the creators were shooting for the kind of gritty realism that — with the exception of “Gunsmoke” — was absent from other horse operas that glutted the prime time schedule of the ’50s and early ’60s. While other Westerns featured stylized heroes who were superhumanly quick on the trigger, the “Rawhide” bunch was drawn as authentic working cowboys, pushing 3,000 head of cattle up from Texas to the railhead at Sedalia, Mo. Along the way they encountered all kinds of characters, good and bad (played by prestigious guest stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Burgess Meredith, Ralph Bellamy and Richard Basehart), and all sorts of perilous situations, much like NBC’s “Wagon Train” from the same period.
The regular weekly crew included Paul Brinegar as Wishbone the cantankerous cook and Erick, OK, native Sheb Wooley as seasoned scout Pete Nolan, among several others. The first 15 hourlong episodes of the ’61-’62 season are contained in the latest four-disc DVD package, showcasing the series at its peak with well-written stories and solid acting, and Eastwood’s star potential in plain view, even though he was still only the second banana, and two years away from making “A Fistful of Dollars.” Installments focusing on Rowdy include “Rio Salado,” “The Black Sheep,” “Twenty-Five Santa Clauses” and “The Long Count.”
— Gene Triplett