Those Leading Ladies on the Western Screen

Elizabeth Lane’s post last week on sidekicks got me to thinking about the women who made their cowboys look good on television and film.   Like Elizabeth said, ‘A good sidekick is a real gem.’  

Well, I figure aamandablake.jpg good woman’s gotta be just about priceless.

How about Amanda Blake?  We knew her as Kitty Russell on Gunsmoke.   She was only 27 years old when she took on the role, and for 20 years she enjoyed her reign as a household name.  Gunsmoke was the longest running Western ever.   As far as I knew, she and Matt Dillon never kissed, but boy, I sure hoped they would.gunsmoke.jpg

Perhaps it’s not surprising with a reign that long, that she tired of the role, saying, “God, if I have to put on that damn bustle and those curls one more time, I’m gonna snap.  Nineteen years is a hell of a long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar.”

Seems those words came back to haunt her.  Her career faltered after that (as did the show, which was cancelled the next year). 

She married five times, was a longtime heavy smoker who underwent oral cancer surgery, then had to have therapy to regain her ability to talk.  Her fourth husband was openly bisexual and died of AIDS; she in turn died of AIDS complications in 1989 at the age of 60.

And then there was Linda Cristal.  Remember her?  She played Victoria Montoya Cannon on High Chaparral (loved that show!).  Beautiful and flamboyant, she had a turbulent childhood.  Though born in Argentina, her family was exiled to Uruguay due to her father’s involvement in a political dispute.  Tragically, her parents were killed in a car craslindac.jpgh in 1947.  The crash was billed as a suicide pact as a result of her mother becoming comatose from lack of insulin and her father’s distress from his inability to support hishighchap.jpg family while in exile.

Like Amanda Blake, Linda married five times, and despite her beauty, her luck ran bad with men.  Her first marriage lasted 5 days, her second 11 months, her third 6 years, her fourth ( ? Well, I’m not sure but she married him in 1968 and had husband #5 in 1972.)  She enjoyed her tenure on High Chaparral, claiming she ‘got along with all of the cast members because I was the only woman, and that made it easier.’

Today, she is retired and spends her time between several homes.

Here’s one to jog your memories.  Gail Davis.  She played Annie Oakley on television and became well-known for her signature pigtails and pistols.  Weighing all of 95 lbs. and reachgaildavis.jpging only 5 ft. 2 ins., she got her start in a supporting role with Roy Rogers, then went on to appear in well over 30 films, all but three which were westerns.  She appeared with Gene Autry in 14 films.  She was a great trick rider and shot and once commented, “I’ll be Annie Oakley for the rest of my born days.”  I think she was right.

After she left the entertainment business, she toured western film shows and memorabilia festivals.  She died from cancer in 1997.  In 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Inger Stevens.  Ah, doesn’t that face bring you back?  She had a rough life, though, being born in Sweden and starting out as an often-ill and insecure child.  She left home at age 16, headed to NYC and began a life in show business. ingerstevens.jpg

She was best known for her leading role in the television series, The Farmer’s Daughter, but she landed roles on Bonanza and in Hang ‘Em High with Clint Eastwood.  She had numerous affairs with Hollywood’s leading men, including Bing Crosby and Burt Reynolds, then committed suicide in 1970 by flinging herself through a glass screen while gripped in the throes of an overdose of drugs.

How sad is that?

Now, I’m wondering – Why do we have this fascination with movie stars?  Even more, why were/are their lives often turbulent?  Why do they have commitment issues? 

How do you think you’d like a life in the limelight?  Maybe the money and glamour would be worth it.   Or not.  Is it possible a normal childhood would shield a person from a high-profile life?  Help them commit to one man as a forever mate?

Any ideas?  I’d love to hear them!

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but she's proud of her contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing, too! Stay up on the latest at

25 thoughts on “Those Leading Ladies on the Western Screen”

  1. I’m not sure why we have a fascination with movie stars. Probably because that lifestyle seems so much more glamorous than our own. Sadly, I think being in the spotlight all the time would take it’s toll on a person and they are just normal people like us, but that would be a very stressful life. It’s probably the reason so many die tragically.

    I would say that their commitment issues come from always looking for “the next best thing.” Or abandonment issues or never being happy with who they really are outside the spotlight. I would imagine acting sets your lifestyle up for false hopes and happiness sometimes. Not for all, but possibly they spend so much time acting- pretending to be someone they aren’t, that they never know who they really are.

  2. Wow, Taryn! What an insightful comment. How can you think so well this early in the morning?

    Had you heard the tragic news about Heath Ledger? Here’s a young man literally in his prime who has died far too young. The whole country will be holding their breaths at the autopsy results, but clearly he’s been troubled.

    Perhaps it’s the stress of living a high-profile life, and being known world-wide. Makes me think my ordinary life in the Midwest ain’t so bad, after all.

  3. Thank you Pam. Honestly I sat here revising it over and over because the thought processes just weren’t coming out right at first! LOL

    Yes, I heard about Heath Ledger. I burst into tears because though he wasn’t a “huge” actor, I still loved him in any of the movies I saw him in. For me it’s sadder still because he was only a few years younger than me.

    I heard on the news this morning that they “think” it might have been an accidental overdose. I just can’t imagine he did it purposely, but you never can tell.

    I’m with you. I’m glad I live in Smalltown, KY.

  4. Pam, you posted this nice look at women in westerns and all we can think of are solemn thoughts. not that suicide and five divorces aren’t solemn) Heath Ledger brings it all home that money can’t buy happiness and so many other old sayings, “Pretty is as pretty does.” “Beauty is only skin deep.” Obviously behind the good looks are some deep serious problems if you get married five times or are addicted to heroine, like they say Ledger was.

    We spend so much time on the superficial in this life, then we see a guy like that, or women like the ones you talked about, who have EVERYTHING, beauty, wealthy, fame…and realize that’s not everything…that’s barely anything.

  5. I know, Mary. Everything you said is right on. I suspect the root of most high-profile people’s problems is the pressure of that huge persona the camera has developed for them. Getting a taste of that adoration from the public would be addicting for most egos.

    This has turned into a somber discussion, hasn’t it? Hearing about Heath late last night seemed apropos for the blog.

    But – of the four western actresses I’d mentioned, only Gail Davis seems to have been grounded in reality. As far as I could tell, she was still married to the first man she’d married–and went by his name as well. Also, she was a true western girl, clear to the core!

  6. I couldn’t believe Amanda Blake was only 47 when that show ended. !! She looked as though she’d been ridden hard and put away wet. The excessive smoking explains it, I reckon. She was too rough-looking for my taste, but Inger Stevens, now there was a beauty. Sweet voice, sultry smile. I used to try to get my hair in that French twist that she wore on The Farmer’s Daughter. Now Katie and the Senator – there was a hot combo imho.

    It was a good thing Kitty and Matt never got together. It’s the sexual tension that keeps a story going. Look at shows like Who’s The Boss? where the tension completely disappeared once Tony and Angela were married. That was a big mistake on the writers’ part — so the Gunsmoke writers had it together.

  7. My husband always LOATHED Victoria Barclay on The Big Valley, pretty fond of Audra though, of course not really because he never watched it because of Victoria.
    I guess that ‘strong matriarch’ just didn’t work for him, especially in a western.
    There were absolutely NO WOMEN on Bonanza were there? I’ve never really thought about it before.
    Like it would have killed Ben Cartwright to just get married one more time. Didn’t his sons each have a different mother? Am I remembering that right?
    I guess you can’t blame Ben for giving up on the fragile creatures.

  8. yes, Ben’s boys all had a different mom. I loved the show…went to Lake Tahoe last year only to find that the Ponderosa is no longer open to the public. Aaargh….I would not like to be a celebrity, always on display. Give me my quiet little hearth and home any time. This was, as usual, another great post, Pam. Thanks again, fillies.

  9. Mary and Tanya, you’re right! I never knew that Bonanza boys all had different moms. A little googling, and here’s what I found:

    “Adam was born in New England and his mother was Elizabeth, who died in childbirth. Hoss’ mother Inger was killed by Indians. She was Scandinavian and Hoss means “good luck” in Norwegian. Little Joe’s mother, Marie, was a woman Ben met in New Orleans and she died from a fall from a horse.


  10. Cheryl, I also thought Kitty had a rough edge to her, but then she fit the part for working in a saloon all those years, eh?

    And you are so right about that sexual tension. Truly, every show, I hoped for that kiss to come. And it never, ever did.

  11. And Mary, nope. No female was a regular part of the cast. Even the Cartwright cook was a man. Hop Sing. Remember him?

    Anyone think it strange that three grown men still lived with good ol’ dad? You’d think they’d want their own place, eh?

  12. Hi Pam, I’m a little late this morning. You sure got me thinking though. I’m sure one reason that most marriages don’t last long in Hollywood is jealousy. Pure jealousy. Can you imagine watching your wife kiss a lot of other men on screen and sometimes. . .well usually these days, get naked and in bed during a scene? I think it would be really hard to watch. And so often the leading ladies did fall head over heels in love (or so they thought) with the leading men.

    And then, like Taryn mentioned, Hollywood seems to strip a person of their personification. They become people they don’t recognize. And they forsake their roots, forgetting where they came from and the values instilled in them before they became famous. In a way, they sell their souls.

    As for me, I don’t want any part of fame. I like being unrecognized when I go out. And plain and simple, I like being who I am.

    Thought-provoking post today! Sure got my thinker warmed up.

  13. I forgot to mention that I loved High Chapparal. It was always full of adventure and excitement. I had a crush on the man who played Blue Boy. And Victoria was so beautiful. I always wondered how she could remain so calm during all the calamity.

    And then I wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Heath Ledger. He must’ve been horribly unhappy, even if it doesn’t turn out to be suicide. Then, there’s Brittney. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to hear of her committing suicide any day now. That’s one troubled, unhappy broad. She’s about to crash and burn. Too sad and such a waste of a life.

  14. I watch those crazy photographers chase Britney Spears and I feel so sorry for her. But I heard someone say that it’s not as predatory as it looks. That famous people -some of them- court this attention to a sick degree because they have had it for so long they measure their self-worth by the size of the crowd and sometimes they hate the scrutiny, but even more, they are terrified of the day no photog is stalking them.
    I’ve heard Princess Diana did some really strange things to make sure the photogs would always be there waiting, like every once in a while, just walk out and talk with them and pose with them.
    So we see that mob around Britney and think, “How can she get them to leave her alone?”
    But she’s thinking, “How can I keep them with me?”

    I also think, again like Britney, you get so rich and famous you develop this attitude that anyone who says no to you is fired.
    So she surrounds herself with people who only tell her what she wants to hear. And if anyone who really loves her begs her to get help, well, they’re gone. So that would include a spouse too. I heard Heath Ledger’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter tried and tried and tried to get him help. But if you’re rich and spoiled enough, when someone starts nagging and fighting with you, they’re gone.

  15. Wow! Great post today Pam! I love those classic leading ladies. I’m not sure we have so much fascination with movie stars as the media cramming it down our throats. Frankly, I loved the older stars, because she didn’t know about their baggage and troubles, so it’s nice to fantasize about them. Today, everyone airs their dirty laundry and it’s not appealing.

    I met Barbara Stanwyck once – a very gracious lady!

  16. Mary and Linda, your posts as always are full of wisdom and intuition.

    It all boils down to power. It’s an addicting thing to have a taste of it. Once it fades away, you crave it. Self-worth hinges on how we perceive ourselves without it.

    I feel sorry for the little ones . . . how can they understand what their parents are doing to themselves? They only know that suddenly, one day, their mommy or daddy isn’t there anymore.

    Makes me sad.

  17. Charlene, oh, yes, the media is a huge problem. Probably the worst. Something the older stars didn’t have to deal with as much.

    With today’s Internet, news/gossip/speculation is instanteous. People all over the world are talking and sharing opinions . . .

    Like us, eh?

  18. I cannot imagine being a star. To be harassed by the media and the stress of always being beautiful would take a toll on a person.

  19. Hello, Estella! You bring up a good point–the price of beauty. The money spent on clothes, the need to be forever thin, the time spent in front of a mirror with make up and hair styling–yeesh!

    A few extra pounds and the whole world is talking about how fat you are? No thank you!

  20. First of all Amanda Blake, Never liked Miss Kitty. Don’t know why just didn’t. Mary I am with your husband on this “I LOATHED Victoria Barclay on The Big Valley”. But then I never like Barbara in anything.

    High Chaparral was one of my favorites, I remember as a little girl I would sneak in the kitchen to watch it because it came on late on a school night. So I got into a lot of trouble for that.

    I guess I watched Bonanza too much I was so addicted to this show I wouldn’t even leave the house to it went off.

  21. Fabulous post, Pam. What is it about those tragic beauties you mentioned? Maybe their vulnerability was part of what made them so fascinating on screen.
    Hi Chaparral was my favorite series–its run seemed way too short for me.
    And me–I liked Barbara Stanwyk. She was a strong woman, well ahead of her time. That power showed through in every role she played. (I especially liked Christmas in Connecticut where she played a writer named Elizabeth Lane) 🙂

  22. Hi, Sherry! A television in the kitchen? That was unusual back then, wasn’t it?

    The fact these shows are such fond memories for all of us is a testament to their quality and wholesomeness. Well, Victoria Barclay (for some of us) excepted!

  23. I never watched High Chaparral, so I don’t even know what it is! I watched Big Valley a handful of times and I didn’t like that Barklay woman either. I LOVED Bonanza. It was dangerous to fall for a Cartwright, though. All the women in their lives kicked the bucket. Good thing Little Joe was too old for me or I’d have married him and had to die.

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