On This Day: Classic Western Series ‘The Virginian’ First Premiered in 1962

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Saddle up, cowboys, because The Virginian turns 58 today! The western series aired on NBC from 1962 to 1971 for a total of 249 episodes. The Virginian made TV history as the first western with 90-minute episodes.

The series was set in the Wyoming Territory, specifically in Medicine Bow, Wyoming around the 1890s. It followed the foreman of the Shiloh Ranch who went only by the name The Virginian, played by James Drury, and his ranch hand, Trampas, played by Doug McClure. Later, the ranch was owned by Judge Henry Garth, played by Lee J. Cobb.

The show was loosely based on the 1902 western novel by Owen Wister, The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains. It ran for 9 seasons, and comes in at television’s third-longest running western, behind Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

Get to Know the Characters

The character The Virginian is a man of honor, loyalty, and respect. The show follows him as he tries to keep order on the ranch, dealing with grueling cattle drives, outlaws, helping people in trouble, and navigating romantic entanglements.

Trampas, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of The Virginian. He’s good-natured and rowdy, but his work ethic suffers a bit. He used to get into trouble with Judge Henry Garth, but since joining the ranch, he straightened out and became a dedicated worker. He still gets into trouble now and then, but that’s all part of his charm.

Owner of the Shiloh Ranch, Judge Henry Garth comes across as a hard man, but he becomes a mentor for The Virginian. He has an affectionate streak, and earns the respect of the Medicine Bow citizens.

Fun Facts About ‘The Virginian’

In 2019, James Drury spoke to The Times about his years on The Virginian, and how the story still stands up. “The old westerns were morality plays that showed the triumph of good over evil,” he said, “and I think that’s important for young people to see onscreen these days because it will inspire them to live their lives that way.”

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford once guest starred on The Virginian, and Drury recalls their famous feud in the interview, saying, “After Joan Crawford was cast in the show, I never heard from Bette Davis again.” He continued, stating, “she just wouldn’t have anything to do with me for working with Joan Crawford.”

Surprisingly, Drury also revealed that Lee J. Cobb actually hated the show; “He [Cobb] brought all those years as a Hollywood star to the role, but he hated the show.” Drury went on, “He did an interview saying he thought the show was terrible and wished he could buy up all the film and turn it into banjo picks!” Drury said he thought Cobb would’ve been “gratified” to know that the show lasted as long as it did; it still has the dedicated fan base to show for it.