Most Famous Cowboy Movie Heroes

Friday, March 25 by Travis Petersen

Some of the most famous cowboy movie heroes were historical figures, others archetypes that captured the imagination of moviegoers. They are often associated with one particular actor whose personality defines the role, but many of the most famous cowboy movie heroes were actually played, over time, by different actors who each brought something new to the portrayal. Here they are, the most famous cowboy movie heroes in western film.

  1. Wyatt Earp. The U.S. Marshal who brought law to the boom town of Tombstone and feuded with the Clanton gang is easily the most famous of all cowboy movie heroes, played by men as varied as Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell in modern movies and Henry Fonda ("My Darling Clementine") and Burt Lancaster ("Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). He is an icon of western film, a vengeful lawman, and tops our list of the most famous cowboy movie heroes.
  2. The Man With No Name. Clint Eastwood's iconic nameless, nomadic gunfighter carried the trilogy of spaghetti westerns that birthed him. The character first appears in "A Fistful of Dollars," continues his adventures in "For a Few Dollars More," and is the "Good" in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Eastwood also plays a variation on this role in his own directorial effort "High Plains Drifter."
  3. Billy the Kid. The youthful, left-handed gunslinger first came to prominence in a series of films starring Buster Crabbe in the titular role, and endured into the era of revisionist westerns, embodied onscreen by Kris Kristofferson in Sam Peckinpah's dark "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid." His most recent prominent appearance is in the "Young Guns" films, portrayed by the always boyish Emilio Estevez. The outlaw who died young is truly one of the most famous cowboy movie heroes.
  4. Wild Bill Hickok. Along with his associate Calamity Jane, the famous killer Wild Bill has been onscreen many times, recently on television played by Keith Carradine in "Deadwood." His most iconic portrayal may be by Gary Cooper in "The Plainsman." His death at the poker table is one of the most recreated scenes in popular film, making him an easy choice for any list of the most famous cowboy movie heroes.
  5. Rooster Cogburn. The gritty, one-eyed marshal at the head of both versions of "True Grit" nabbed John Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar, but a new generation may remember the role from Jeff Bridges' more nuanced performance. Wayne also reprised the role in "Rooster Cogburn" alongside Katherine Hepburn. Cogburn endures today as one of our most famous cowboy movie heroes.
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