Part Legend of the Wild West Is All Hero on the Small Screen
Visiting my 93 year old grandfather in Florida, I came to appreciate his favorite television show du jour: a Western of the late 1950s and early 60s called Bat Masterson.
The real William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, upon whom the character and show are based, was a US Marshall, gambler, and gunfighter in the 1880s American Wild West, who received a late-in-life deputization by then President Teddy Roosevelt.
Is the show cheesy as hell? Does Masterson have a magical way of hitting people on the head that knocks them harmlessly unconscious when shooting them would be too severe? Is the show patriarchal in its depiction and treatment of men vs women? Are its depictions of native Americans in a few episodes pretty prejudiced? Of course. All are true to varying degrees. And those things don’t set this show apart from any other program of its time.
What sets Bat Masterson apart is the title character’s heroically unflappable positive attitude.
In the show, Masterson, played by Gene Berry, is self-confidence personified. Episode after episode, Masterson has not a single recurring character for a friend. He’s alone in a world of strangers everywhere he goes. Even of the people who know of him by name or reputation, many are antagonistic. He has no one giving him positive reinforcement and no one to look to for advice. Often, people he meets have a stake in his downfall.
Yet Bat is undeterred. He stands up for himself again and again, with grace, with positivity, with generosity of spirit. Masterson brings his own understanding of right and wrong to every encounter, whether it’s with a train robber or a crooked sheriff or an ill-informed judge. Scene after scene, he is burdened by neither mind nor spirit nor his ever-troubled circumstances. It is through adversity he comes to life.
His attitude is courageous, really. It’s inspiriring. Maybe only to me, because I find myself in need of a role model with such traits. I find my grandfather. He’s still on top of his game. Sharp as tack. No one putting a move over on him. He’s his own man. Even at 93. And he’s watching Masterson.
Perhaps television is full of characters like Bat and I’ve just been missing it. He demonstrates courage with a smile and, often, with great compassion for his adversaries. It’s educational viewing. In so many scenes, in so many episodes, I think, “Wow, that reminds me of a situation where I didn’t speak up for myself and let myself get walked over. But Bat Masterson didn’t do that. He’s showing me another way.” I flash back to areas of my own life where I haven’t taken stands. I resolve to do so from now on. Thanks to Bat, I can imagine how.
Though Masterson displays compassion, he also shoots and kills someone (often multiple people) in every episode. Many of the fatal shootings happen over disagreements and bumped elbows at the local saloon. Perhaps that’s what it was really like in the Old West? Perhaps this is how life would be today if everyone had a six shooter on their hip?
The Masterson character carries not only a gun, but also a gold-tipped wooden cane, which he uses not for walking but for walloping people in confrontations. He might as well also carry a bullwhip. He’s like Batman in that regard: superhero via utility belt. Why everyone in that era who was carrying a gun wasn’t also carrying a cane, I can’t figure out. Though I do think carrying a whip and a sword might have been even more effective.
So here is this guy gallivanting around the West with a deck of cards and tens of thousands of dollars in his pockets (which was like hundreds of thousands if not a million of today’s dollars) and he’s carrying a gun (of course, with all that cash!) and a cane he uses to bat people (so much so that he gets nicknamed “Bat”) and he’s “enforcing justice” as best he can along the way. Either despite or because of its ridiculousness, I find the show both entertaining and enlightening.
Masterson also has the coolest way of introducing himself. Rather than just saying “I’m Bat,” as any normal person would, he says loudly and clearly: “My name is Masterson, William Barclay. My friends call me Bat.”
Talk about gravitas, self-importance, and taking oneself seriously! Even “Bond, James Bond” seems informal by comparison. If people didn’t know Masterson’s name before, they remember it after his grand introduction.
He says the whole thing multiple times in every episode, anytime he meets someone new. Sometimes people stop him right after he says his last name, and they say, “Masterson? You’re Bat Masterson?!”
Sometimes people recognize him without introduction, particularly by his cane and derby hat. Most times, though, people have never heard of him. If they have heard of him, they often dislike him immediately because they misunderstand him as a threat or a man of ill intent. They challenge him and try to stop or even hurt him when what he really needs their help and cooperation.
It’s in these moments that Masterson really shines. He asserts himself with a bold correction, speaking loudly and clearly. He’s unafraid of temporary setbacks. If he gets hauled into jail during one of his fights for justice, he takes it in stride. Someone pulls a gun on him, no problem. He’s cool under pressure. He’ll probably even joke about it…right up until the point he has the chance to free himself. In almost every episode, Masterson not only wins the fight and achieves his goal, but converts victims into heroes and villains into partners.
I see a lot of my grandfather in the Masterson character. Not in the gunslinger per se, nor the horse-riding cowboy, but in the charming hero who won’t be stopped by anyone (or anything) looking to cheat him or those around him. I see my grandfather in the ever-present smile. The purposefulness. The generosity of spirit, protected by a “Well, wait just a minute now…” readiness to take gun out of holster should the need arise.
My grandfather is a sharp tack. I’ve never known him to get swindled or cheated. Even more importantly, no one has ever been able to steal his relentless optimism. These qualities can be hard to come by in life. Sometimes it seems even the people closest to us lack them. That’s why it's important to recognize and honor those qualities when they do show up in our lives— through a family member, a friend, or even a TV character.
I’ve had the pleasure of spending a fair amount of time with my grandfather. He’s jovial, purposeful, stern, an adventurer and a risk taker, a helper, someone happy to give to others without letting himself be taken in. Perhaps Bat Masterson’s Wild West was unique, a world hot with chaos in which someone had to have tremendous courage and clear-eyed intention to survive. Perhaps my grandfather’s world was like that, too. I feel like my own world is like that. Perhaps life always is.
And if it is, thank goodness for heroes like my grandfather and his on-screen hero, the fictional (or factual) Bat Masterson. They remind me that the way to succeed is to not be afraid of failure, just as the way to live is to not be afraid of death.
I close with the lyrics to the Bat Masterson theme song, which, in my opinion, rival only Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch in their ability to sum the plot in under 30 seconds:
Back when the West was very young
There lived a man named Masterson
He wore a cane and derby hat
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson
A man of steel, the stories say
But women's eyes all glanced his way
A gambler's game he always won
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson
The trail that he blazed is still there
No one has come since, to replace his name
And those with too ready a trigger
Forgot to figure on his lightning cane
Now in the legend of the west
One name stands out of all the rest
The man who had the fastest gun
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson
Woodrow Pack Landfair is an adventurer, author, entrepreneur, and the Adventure Correspondent for HighTides Journal. He is the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Land Of The Free (Harbinger Book Group, 2014), about an indefinite 48 state motorcycle journey he began in 2006, and about the personal challenges fought years afterward while pursuing a life of artistic and professional freedom on the road. Three years after the book's publication, in 2017, Pack purchased El Porto Surf Shop and moved to El Porto, California to surf and write every day. Pack is a graduate of the University of Texas where he studied English Literature on full academic scholarship from the United States Navy ROTC, and was the only walk-on member of the 2005 College World Series Champion Texas Longhorn baseball team - among several soon-to-be major leaguers. At Texas, Pack earned Midshipman of the Month, Student-Athlete of the Month, Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll, served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, made three trips to the College World Series, and was twice voted Teammate Of The Year by his teammates. Pack is currently pursuing a personal goal to surf every coastal nation on planet Earth - as a means of seeing the world, learning different philosophies, and making friends across the globe. The first 19 countries of that journey are the subject of Pack's next book Here To Surf Vol. 1 in bookstores December 2024.