8 Western Movies That Turned Actors Into Bonafide Stars

Every major western movie star from Clint Eastwood to John Wayne can be traced back to an early-career hit that launched them to stardom.

  •  Many of the iconic Hollywood movie stars of the Golden Age got their start in classic western films, which helped launch them to stardom.
  •  Clint Eastwood and John Wayne both had breakthrough roles in westerns that paved the way for their successful careers as leading men.
  •  The western genre was a popular and influential genre in early American cinema, and actors like Charles Bronson, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, and Henry Fonda all found success through their roles in western movies.

Some of the most iconic movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood got their start in a classic western film that introduced them to a wider audience. In the early days of American cinema, the western was one of two popular genres – along with hard-boiled film noir – that were hugely popular among moviegoers. A hit film in one of these genres, especially westerns, could turn a workaday actor into a nationally recognizable movie star. From James Stewart to Gary Cooper to Charles Bronson, plenty of A-listers got their start with a memorable performance in a beloved classic of the western genre.

Every major western movie star from Clint Eastwood to John Wayne can be traced back to an early-career hit that launched them to stardom. Eastwood got his start in one of the early spaghetti westerns that defined the blood-soaked Italian interpretation of the well-worn American genre, while Wayne got his start in a John Ford-helmed classic that helped to pioneer the western’s tropes and trademarks. The prolific careers of Henry Fonda, Lee Marvin, and Randolph Scott all began with a lead role in a great western movie that turned them from regular working actors into highly sought-after movie stars.

8, The Magnificent Seven – Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson scored his first leading role as the title character in Roger Corman’s 1958 film noir Machine-Gun Kelly. But he didn’t break into the mainstream until he gave a scene-stealing supporting turn as professional gunfighter Bernardo O’Reilly in the ensemble cast of The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges’ westernized reimagining of Seven Samurai, in 1960. Any actor who can hold their own opposite screen legends like Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen is bound to stand out. The stoic on-screen persona that Bronson introduced in The Magnificent Seven would return in Bronson-starring western movies like 4 for TexasGuns of Diablo, and Once Upon a Time in the West.

7, Destry Rides Again – James Stewart

After breaking out with his turn as an idealistic politician in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart solidified his movie star status with his lead performance as Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., the new sheriff’s deputy in the town of Bottle Neck, in George Marshall’s 1939 western comedy Destry Rides Again. Stewart went on to star in such classic movies as The Philadelphia StoryHow the West Was Won, and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. He also became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to leading men, with starring roles in VertigoRear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

6, The Virginian – Gary Cooper

Before starring in High NoonA Farewell to Arms, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper got his breakout role in Victor Fleming’s pre-Code western The Virginian in 1929. Based on Owen Wister’s 1902 novel of the same name, The Virginian revolves around a kind-hearted cowboy who falls for the local schoolmarm and is shocked to learn that his friend is involved in cattle rustling. This role introduced Cooper’s on-screen image as an incorruptible hero that audiences could look up to. The character is best remembered for Cooper’s iconic line, “If you wanna call me that, smile,” in response to the villain’s cussing.

5, Heritage Of The Desert – Randolph Scott


Randolph Scott acted in films from a wide range of different genres, from war movies to horror movies to sobering social dramas. But he got his start in the western genre and scored his first leading role as Jack Hare in Henry Hathaway’s 1932 directorial debut Heritage of the Desert. Adapted from Zane Grey’s 1910 novel of the same name, Heritage of the Desert focuses on a rancher who’s challenged by an outlaw hiding out in a herd of stolen cattle. The film led to many more starring roles for Scott and began a long-standing working relationship between Scott and Hathaway.

4, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – Lee Marvin

Before he started playing redeemable antiheroes like Walker in Point Blank and the Sergeant in The Big Red One, Lee Marvin was renowned for playing the heavy in crime films like The Big Heat and The Wild One early in his career. His most memorable villain role arrived in John Ford’s 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which he played the title character, Liberty Valance. John Wayne and James Stewart are the stars of the movie, but Marvin’s Valance provided them with a worthy foe. After that, he was forever ingrained in the American cinematic consciousness as an unforgettable baddie.

3, The Ox-Bow Incident – Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda had played supporting roles in westerns like Jesse James and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine before his service in World War II, but he didn’t become a leading man until he returned from the war and starred as cowboy Gil Carter in William A. Wellman’s 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident. The movie would’ve had a good chance of winning Best Picture at the Oscars if it wasn’t nominated in the same year as Casablanca. Fonda later subverted the everyman persona he established in The Ox-Bow Incident when he played a sadistic villain in Once Upon a Time in the West.

2, A Fistful Of Dollars – Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood was already starring in the hit TV show Rawhide when Sergio Leone cast him as the gunslinging “Man with No Name” in his seminal 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. But A Fistful of Dollars launched his big-screen acting career. It was followed by two sequels – For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – comprising one of the greatest trilogies in film history. Eastwood went on to become a cultural icon of masculinity with roles like vigilante cop Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry franchise and grizzled war veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino.

1, Stagecoach – John Wayne

There is arguably no western movie star more iconic than John Wayne. Wayne starred in conventional westerns like Red RiverRio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as darker, more subversive westerns like True Grit, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and The Searchers. His tenure as a superstar of the western genre began with his standout turn as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach. The Ringo Kid is a sharpshooting badass (the first of many played by Wayne) who broke out of prison to avenge the murders of his father and brother.

3The Ox-Bow Incident – Henry Fonda

7Destry Rides Again – James Stewart


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