Updated: Apr 19
The hero is 'foiled' again
What do Dr. Watson, Sancho Panza, Donald Duck, Leporello, Robin, Booboo, Barney Rubble and Shrek’s donkey have in common? Yup, they’re all sidekicks.
As we know, the sidekick, or close companion, usually a subordinate and often comic, was an integral part of the Western.
It’s an odd word, isn’t it? One theory is that the term originated in pickpocket slang of the late 19th century. The "kick" was the front side pocket of a pair of pants, and it was known as the place safest from theft. Thus, by analogy, a "side-kick" was a person's closest companion. Hmm, a bit of a stretch, that. Maybe the name refers to the sidekick's accomplishments being "kicked to the side" or otherwise ignored in favor of the more charismatic lead hero. OK, I agree, maybe not. The sidekick was originally a side kicker and the term was popularised by the stories of O Henry, who was writing in New York but as a young man had lived in Texas. The first example from his works is 1903, though he'd probably picked it up before:
Guthrie, Oklahoma, Dec. 25. “Tulsa Jack,” side kicker of the late bandit Dalton, and a gang of eight men rode into Ingalls and declared that Bill Dalton had been betrayed by a saloon keeper named Nicholls and proceeded to demolish his saloon. Galveston Daily News, 26 Dec. 1894.
Worldwide Words explains: “The side part is easy enough to explain. It meant a person who was literally or figuratively at one’s side. The most likely source for the second part is an old sense of kick, meaning to walk or wander (the idea is of idly kicking stones) that turned into kick around or kick about, to hang around. Those are recorded in the US from the 1830s. So a sidekicker, later a sidekick, was a friend you kicked around with.”
That’ll do. A sidekick can be dramatically useful, providing a person for the hero to explain the plot to. He (it’s nearly always a he) can also be handy as someone for the audience to relate to more easily that the superhuman hero, especially if the audience is juvenile and the sidekick is young (like Red Ryder’s Apache pal Little Beaver or Range Rider's pal Dick Jones). If the sidekick is a bit dumb, that makes the hero look smarter, and if the sidekick is short and fat, that makes the hero look more handsome. Decidedly useful, sidekicks.
Only goodies can have sidekicks, though. Villains have henchmen, or maybe lackeys. That means that sidekicks are, by extension, goodies themselves, even if not so much as the hero. They can be a bit cowardly, maybe, or not so bold. Still, they usually come up trumps in the end, and they can be resourceful or, if young, plucky. I also don't think that deputies can be sidekicks, not really. Chester or Festus weren't really sidekicks of Matt Dillon, not properly speaking. There’s that good bit in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford when Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) declares his admiration for Frank James (Sam Shepard) and offers to be his “sidekick”. Frank just treats the request with a curled lip of incomprehension and contempt.
There was a fashion, started by Hopalong Cassidy I think, for having two sidekicks: a comic cranky old-timer (often played by an actor who was in reality much younger) and a youthful ingénu to romance the dames – for Hoppy-style heroes were too pure to do that. The mode spread and quite a few Western heroes rode around in trios. We think immediately of the Three Mesquiteers.
Richard Martin doesn’t quite make it into the Sidekick Top Ten but he did 37 Westerns as the amorous Mexican-Irish guitarist-singer Chico Rafferty, sidekicking different leads such as Robert Mitchum in Nevada and West of the Pecos and happily switching to Tim Holt, when Tim came back from the war and all through the late 1940s.
So who are the greatest Western sidekicks? Well, I have thought long and hard about this for it is, you will agree, a matter of great import. It’s not something you can afford to get wrong. And I have come up with the ten greatest Western sidekicks. Sorry if your favorite isn’t in the list (which is of course entirely subjective and based on no research whatsoever) but you’ll just have to leave a comment if so, and put me right. There were many I reluctantly discarded, such as Edgar Buchanan, for example. He was Red Connors after all. But though he sidekicked, I think of him more as a character actor - crooked judge, rascally sheriff and so on. Leo Carrillo’s Pancho was a definite contender ("Let's go, Ceesco"), Rocky Lane’s sidekick Eddy Waller too, Ray Hatton, and Andy Clyde (Hopalong’s pal California Carson) but, hey ho, they can’t all get in.
Walter Brennan, Number 10, wasn’t a serial sidekick in the way that the others were, and so he doesn’t reach the dizzy heights in our rankings, but he places in the top ten because he was superb as cranky old-timer counterpoint to John Wayne. One thinks especially of course of his Groot in Red River and his Stumpy in Rio Bravo but he also worked alongside Duke in Dakota in 1945.
Brennan was capable of excellent lead parts (he was a fine actor) such as his Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner but somehow I always think of him as Wayne’s ornery sidekick. Of course even Wayne had been a sidekick once – to Tim McCoy.
I have rather a soft spot for Milburn Morante, and have elected him Number 9. Milburn Charles Morante, sometimes billed as Milt Moranti (1887 to 1964) was a vaudeville performer who worked in silent era comedy films and formed his own film company, Mercury Pictures, with his family on the payroll. Milburn directed a few silent movies too but Mercury was short-lived and by the mid-1920s Morante had moved on. In talkie Westerns he generally portrayed a grizzled old-timer prospector or a drunk, and was rather a runty figure, but he was often a sidekick. All told he was in over 130 Western features and nine serials. The IMDb bio of Morante tells us that he was “a prolific character actor, both in slapstick farce and as comic relief in westerns, notably as sidekick to Buzz Barton in a series of oaters made between 1926 and 1929. As visual madcap comedy waned with the advent of sound, Milburn confined himself almost exclusively to playing grizzled prospectors, tramps, bartenders and more town drunks than one can throw a whiskey glass at. On occasion, he essayed the odd seedy second string villain and was last gainfully employed in several episodes of The Cisco Kid (1950).” For a Morante sample, try the 1935 Rex Lease oater Fighting Caballero.
Dub Taylor, born 1907, died 1994, and better known as Cannonball, is Number 8. He was Jimmy Wakeley’s sidekick in a two-year run of sixteen Monogram oaters in the late 40s, but he also sidekicked the Durango Kid, Russell ‘Lucky’ Hayden, Red Ryder and Bill Elliott.
On the right Dub doubles Don 'Red' Barry in the timeless epic One Man's Law.
A former vaudevillian, footballer and xylophonist (and you don’t see that combination every day) Dub would later be very memorable in Sam Peckinpah's stock company, often in an undershirt and beat-up derby, but for many of us Dub Taylor will always be Cannonball, one of the great sidekicks of the Western movie.
Coming in at Number 7 we have Slim Pickens. Excelling in comic-cowboy roles, former rodeo clown Slim, in the days when he still was, starred alongside Rex Allen in a whole series of 1950s Republic Westerns helmed by William Witney, and this is what gets him into our top ten. And his Taggart in Blazing Saddles (probably more of a henchman than a sidekick) sort of references that. His twangy voice and pronounced Western drawl (and later his girth) combined with his huge comic talent made him ideal in such roles. He would have got higher in the ranking if he’d done a long-running TV show as sidekick, like Andy Devine. Still, he made the top ten. Good old Slim.
Number 6 is Al ‘Fuzzy’ St. John. St. John was born in 1893 and died in 1963. He made over 340 movies and would sidekick for Lash LaRue, Buster Crabbe, Robert Livingston and Bob Steele, among others. He went right back to the silent days – his first Western was Out West with Fatty Arbuckle in 1918 and he even sidekicked the great Tom Mix a couple of times.
He sidekicked Buster Crabbe in no fewer than 26 movies. His name came from Fuzzy Knight’s because Knight was the intended sidekick that the producers of the Fred Scott singing Westerns at Spectrum in the 1930s were after, but Al was brought in to fill in and given the name Fuzzy, which stuck.
And Fuzzy Knight himself is Number 5. The flexible-faced Fuzzy had started in a traveling minstrel show as a boy and there was always something vaudevillian about him. Mae West saw him in vaudeville and gave him his first big film role. But it was as comic (and occasionally musical) sidekick in Westerns that Fuzzy really made his name. He is especially remembered for sidekicking (I imagine that sidekick can also be a verb) Johnny Mack Brown, Tex Ritter and Buster Crabbe, but he didn’t limit his sidekicker roles to them. He appeared in more than 180 films between 1928 and 1967. Need a funny sidekick who can sing? Give Fuzzy a call.
At Number 4 is Andy Devine.
While Avoirdupois Andy often played non-sidekick characters, such as the stage driver in Stagecoach, he was also Roy Rogers’s sidekick Cookie Bullfincher nine times and is probably even more remembered as Jingles, alongside Guy Madison's Wild Bill, in the long-running Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. His high raspy voice and ample girth provided much-needed comic relief to the rather straight Rogers and Madison all through the 1940s and 50s. There was more than a little of Sancho Panza about Andy, even if Guy or Roy were hardly Don Quixote.
Well, we’re reaching the dizzy heights of the top three now.
Nabbing the coveted third place in the Jeff Arnold's West prize (eat your heart out, Oscars) is Smiley Burnette. Lester Alvin Burnette (1911 to 1967) would make over 165 film and television appearances, an astonishing number of them as Frog Milhouse with his friend Gene Autry, before Pat Buttram took over – Autry, Burnette and Buttram were buddies on National Barn Dance on the radio. Smiley also sidekicked for Sunset Carson and the Durango Kid. Smiley and Gene both made their film debut in 1934 in that great Ken Maynard epic In Old Santa Fe (Smiley’s salary was $75) and the Autry/Burnette combo turned into a huge partnership. Smiley did the same job for Roy Rogers when Republic pulled Gene to promote Roy as singing cowboy. Burnette was the first supporting actor to appear regularly on the Top Ten Western money-maker list.
Considered for the very top of the ranking but in the end making a stunning Number 2 is Jay Silverheels’s Tonto. Maybe Tonto was the archetypal sidekick. These days it would never work: even his name wouldn’t pass muster now, nor would the fact that his role was so menial. Little more than a glorified servant, Tonto would always reply humbly to orders with “Me do.” As Lyle Lovett sang, “The mystery masked man was smart, he got himself a Tonto, ‘cos Tonto did the dirty work for free”. When Tonto came back in the person of Johnny Depp in the 21st century he was the smart one and the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) was the dumb straight guy. But for my generation Tonto was the business, and living proof that Sherman was wrong: you could have a good Indian. Silverheels was a good actor and appeared in over fifty feature Westerns, from Kit Carson in 1940 to Santee in 1973, but for most of us he will be forever THE sidekick, the masked man’s loyal factotum Tonto.
Which leaves us with the Number One, the greatest sidekick of them all, and who else could the prize go to but the great Gabby Hayes?
George Francis Hayes (1885 to 1969) had, legend says, worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball before becoming, like so many sidekicks before him, a vaudeville performer with his wife Olive. He tried out for film roles after losing all their money in the Wall Street crash, by the mid-1930s
settling almost exclusively on Westerns and finding his true calling as old-timer sidekick. He started out as Windy, Hopalong Cassidy’s pard, and in 1939 changed from Windy to Gabby after leaving Hoppy. He was sidekick to Wild Bill Elliott, Hoot Gibson, John Wayne in the 30s, and was often paired with Randolph Scott but he will be eternally remembered as Roy Rogers’s sidekick Gabby Whittaker. No one did the amusing and cantankerous old-timer better. Like Walter Brennan, he was always old, even when he was young.
If you put western sidekick in Google search, Gabby is the first picture that comes up. Quite right too. Decidedly, Gabby Hayes deserves to wear the Sidekick Crown.