12 Famous Cowboys in Movies and the Actors Who Played Them
The Western genre might be almost dead and buried, but there was a time when it was one of the most popular in film. Stories about cowboys, outlaws, shootouts, and the gold rush first got made in the late 1890s and slowly worked their way into the public’s imagination.
The “Golden Age of the Western” came about during the 1940s and 1950s and extended into the 1960s and 1970s thanks to directors such as John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Delmer Daves. It was during this time that actors began to make their mark playing famous cowboys in movies.
John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart made their names in Westerns playing cowboys that soon became famous around the world. While some are based on real-life people, many are fictional characters brought to life by these talented actors. What they all have in common is the fact that they never back down from a fight and always kick ass. So here are some of our favorite famous cowboys and the actors who played them.
12 Famous Cowboys in Movies and the Actors Who Played Them
1. The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood)
Before the Academy Awards and his career as a director, Clint Eastwood was an up-and-coming actor who got his start in Spaghetti Westerns. Eastwood made his bones as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Consisting of the films A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Eastwood’s character wears the same clothes in each and finds himself involved in several schemes trying to strike it rich.
The iconic character remains one of Eastwood’s greatest roles, with the Dollars trilogy ushering in a new genre of Western in the 60s. Eastwood would go on to play a cowboy in many more films after, but none had the impact of The Man With No Name.
2. Harmonica (Charles Bronson)
Tough guy actor Charles Bronson steals the spotlight in Sergio Leon’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The plot is simple: a mysterious stranger who plays the harmonica (Bronson) teams up with a bandit (Jason Robards) to protect a beautiful widow (Claudia Cardinale) from a ruthless assassin (Henry Fonda, playing against type).
The film is incredibly shot and acted, with Bronson perfectly cast as the stoic Harmonica. While he doesn’t say much, his harmonica playing signals death is approaching, with almost every other cowboy in the movie afraid of him.
3. Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell)
There are many portrayals of Wyatt Earp in cinematic history, but it’s hard to go past Kurt Russell’s take on the almost mythic figure. The American lawman and gambler was one of the most famous men in the West and his exploits only helped inflate people’s perception of him.
The Western Tombstone focuses on a short period of Earp’s life when he clashed with a group of outlaws known as the Cowboys. The shoot-out at the O.K. Coral was the pivotal moment in the feud that fueled Earp’s thirst for revenge after the death of his brother. Russell is incredible as the take-no-prisoners Earp who just wants a peaceful life but finds himself continually drawn back into the fold.
If you’re after a more realistic portrayal of Earp that’s less action-packed, check out Kevin Costner as the lawman in the movie Wyatt Earp.
4. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)
Three actors have played Rooster Cogburn over the years, with the best being Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake of True Grit. A tough and uncompromising cowboy and Deputy U.S. Marshall, Cogburn is hired by 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross to track down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. The one-eyed Cogburn and Ross are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is also on the hunt for the outlaw.
A drunk with a surly attitude, Bridges is fantastic in the role of Cogburn. Although he finds his companions annoying, Cogburn warms to Ross and ultimately saves her life at the climax of the film.
5. Shane (Allan Ladd)
When it comes to classic Westerns they don’t get much better than Shane. The titular character is a mysterious drifter who finds work helping a rancher and his family on the plains of the Wyoming Territory in 1889. When cattle baron Rufus Ryker hires men to force the settlers from their land, Shane (Allan Ladd), who turns out to be a skilled marksman, leads the settlers in a revolt against Ryker and his goons.
Ladd is outstanding as the charming Shane who just wants to live in peace but finds himself drawn into conflict with Ryker and his men. His moral code means he can’t sit back and watch the settlers be driven from their land, resulting in a violent showdown and one of the great endings in cinematic history.
6. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)
John Wayne played plenty of cowboys during his time in the movie business, but none were as complex as Ethan Edwards. In the movie The Searchers, Edwards returns home from fighting in the Civil War and the Mexican revolutionary war to live with his brother. When Comanches attack, killing his brother’s family and abducting his niece Debbie, Edwards sets out for revenge.
Over the course of several years, Edwards is joined by Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley as the duo track down the Comanche leader Scar, who has Debbie. They eventually find him and rescue an adult Debbie, despite her pleas to be left alone with the tribe.
A vicious killer with racist overtones, Wayne instills Edwards with anger and sorrow. He’s a man driven by revenge who becomes lost in his obsession and seems more interested in killing Native Americans than the rescue of his niece. Edwards is arguably Wayne’s greatest role and The Searchers is undoubtedly one of the great Westerns.
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7. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman)
The real-life leader of the famed Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy was played by Paul Newman in the award-winning film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Cassidy and his best buddy the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are on the run after a botched train robbery, fleeing to Bolivia to escape the law.
Although not entirely historically accurate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a wonderful film about outlaws and the bond between Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Newman is at his charming best as Cassidy and really brings the character to life. The chemistry between Newman and Redford is delightful, helping make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid another of the best Western movies ever made.
8. Pike Bishop (William Holden)
One of the great actors of the 50s, William Holden starred in several successful movies about the Wild West, but none as impacting as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The movie concerns a group of outlaws struggling to deal with the changing times looking for one last score so they can retire in peace.
Holden is in fine form as the aging Pike Bishop, the leader of the group who wants nothing more than to settle down and forget his life of crime. 49 at the time of shooting, Holden was the ideal age for the grizzled Bishop who understands the gunfighter is on his way out.
9. Chris Adams (Yul Brynner)
When it comes to famous Western characters, The Magnificent Seven offers up, you guessed it, seven fantastic individuals worth mentioning. While both Steve McQueen’s Vin Tanner and James Coburn’s Britt are eye-catching, it’s hard to go past Yul Brynner as gunslinger Chris Adams.
In the film, Adams and his rag-tag group of misfits are hired to defend a village from the evil bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his ruthless gang of killers. Chock full of action, The Magnificent Seven is a great Western with Brynner in top form as the man charged with defending the poor villagers from certain death.
10. Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx)
Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Western genre is a violent, dialogue-heavy, revisionist tribute to the Spaghetti Western era of moviemaking. Jamie Foxx is Django Freeman, a former slave who is rescued and trained by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz). Their mission is to track down the Brittle brothers, and in the process, find Django’s wife, who is a slave of wealthy plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Django Unchained is everything you’d expect from a Tarantino Western and more. Foxx is impressive as Django – a man seeking revenge against all those who have wronged him – and is one of the few black cowboys to make an impact in film.
11. Will Kane (Gary Cooper)
Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Will Kane in the classic Western High Noon. Playing out in real-time, Kane is the sheriff of a small town who has until noon to decide whether he flees with his new bride or stays and takes on a gang of outlaws seeking revenge.
Tension is high throughout the movie as Kane asks several friends for advice on what he should do. Cooper is totally believable as the indecisive Kane, who can’t make up his mind between staying and defending his honor or leaving safely with his wife. The movie is highly regarded for showing the West in a different light and giving its women characters more to do than just quiver in fear when gunshots ring out. It’s also one of Cooper’s most memorable roles.
12. The Lady (Sharon Stone)
There aren’t too many female gunslingers in the world of cinema, but one that does stand out is Sharon Stone’s the Lady. In Sam Raimi’s criminally underrated The Quick and the Dead, the Lady enters a dueling competition in hopes of coming up against John Herod (Gene Hackman), a former outlaw who killed her father.
Released in 1995 when the Western was just about dead, the movie failed to find an audience, but those who did watch found an entertaining story about revenge with a fantastic ensemble cast including Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Sinise, Keith David, Lance Henrikson, Tobin Bell, and Mark Boone Jr. Stone is exceptional as the mysterious Lady who lets her six guns do the talking.
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