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How Heroes are Made

The legend began with the Noble Savage: the idealized Native American who embodied the natural man—moral, stoic, self-reliant, and free. James Fennimore Cooper took this heroic ideal a step further, giving us the frontiersman: a noble white man who lived among Indians. Ned Buntline took the idea of the frontiersman and created the chivalrous outlaw: men forced by their honor to live outside society, but continually defend the law.

When Hollywood began filming Westerns, it offered a new, equally improbable style of hero: the strong, silent, shy cowpoke. He was a sturdy, fair-playing, boisterous cavalier who righted wrongs, laughed heartily at bunkhouse pranks, and carelessly broke the wills of stallions and the hearts of women. Despite his improbability, he drew the admired imitation of men and boys, who affected Gary Cooper’s drawl and Tom Mix’s contagious smile.

The high heroic standards of these cowboys seemed to leave little creative room for new heroes. Yet, such a hero emerged in the 1930s: a man who was so dedicated to righteousness that he abandoned his personal life and identity. The Lone Ranger donned a mask to become the champion of law (and spend a lot of time explaining why he dressed like an outlaw to serve justice).

The mask was necessary to keep the hero aloof from the everyday life. Folk heroes were required to live apart from the public. It explained to children why they didn’t keep bumping into Batman at the supermarket.

You have to consider certain rules of the fantastic and the practical when creating a hero. George W. Trendle described these rules in 1939 when he told J. Bryan, III, how he invented the hero for a low-budget program on his Detroit radio station.

The Logic of the Fantastic

Hi-yo, Silver! by J. Bryan, III, October 14, 1939

Hi-yo, Silver! by J. Bryan, III, October 14, 1939

“… the program had to be dramatic, because drama was inexpensive, required no-name stars, and could be home-cooked.

“Now follow his reasoning step by step: Drama, but what kind of drama—for adult or kids? For kids, because they are less critical, and therefore the program need not be so expensive or elaborate. Besides, Trendle believed that most parents buy advertised products because their kids coax them into it.

“What kind of kid drama? Trendle knew that kids’ favorites were crime stories and Westerns. He dismissed crime because he wanted his program to be completely wholesome. He also wanted one that would lend itself to premiums from future sponsors. A crime program admitted little more than masks, badges, and weapons, but a Western opened the field of costume and saddlery as well.

“Western drama of what period? Not contemporary, because the script writer would be cramped by having to defer to probability. Drama postulates a hero. What kind would this one be? Young or mature? Mature, because it is better to respect than to envy. Finally, how to distinguish him from a thousand other Western heroes? Trendle wasn’t sure about this.

“He unveiled [the concept] before his studio staff, in December, 1932. Their first objection was that the hero had no mystery and little romance. Why not make him a sort of benevolent outlaw and give him a mask? Fine! Then it was suggested that he needed something distinctive as an identification. How about a super-horse …?

“His first script was revised 15 times before Trendle gave it a trial broadcast, late at night, and unannounced except to the office staff and the sales force. They reported that they liked the story, but they didn’t like the Ranger’s way of talking; his language seemed to have an Eastern flavor. Trendle stood firm. The Ranger was an Easterner, he said. He might even be from Harvard. At least he was an educated man, and he was going to talk like one. The signature to this first script was: “Come along, Silver! … That’s the boy! … Hi-yi! (hearty laugh). … Now cut loose, and awa-a-ay! (Hoofs pounding harder and fade-out).”

The radio audience grew slowly until Trendle offered a free toy gun to the first 300 listeners who wrote the station. Nearly 25,000 children responded. (There were few opportunities for free toys in 1933.)

The publicity garnered much needed publicity, but the Lone Ranger was soon succeeding without giveaways. Kids admired his unswerving dedication to justice without a trace of personal flaws.

“No secular myth has ever grasped the popular fancy with such strength. It is hard to see why … The Ranger is carved from … cold marble. He has no vices; he hasn’t even any relaxations. He never laughs; he never even smiles.

“[The original] Ranger was a happy-go-lucky swashbuckler who laughed at the discomfited crooks as he rode off. Trendle saw him as a sterner character, ‘the embodiment,’ in his own phrase, ‘of granted prayer.’ So presently all suggestions of humor were erased; the Ranger never smiled again. Trendle didn’t like the “Hi-Yi,” either … History does not preserve the name of the genius who finally evolved ‘Hi-Yo!’ ”

The Lone Ranger’s radio program lasted from 1933 to 1954—2,956 episodes.

Sixty years ago, on September 15, 1949, the Lone Ranger debuted on television, running for 221 episodes more than eight years.

The Arrival of the Family Hero

Heroes Showing Up for Duty, October 31, 1942

Heroes Showing Up for Duty, October 31, 1942

In time, the stern, rigid character of the Lone Ranger was succeeded in popularity by more human heroes. A decade later (on September 12, 1959), the next generation of Western heroes emerged. The Cartwright family on Bonanza became the most popular show on television. (It was also remarkable that it was broadcast in color from its first episode.) The single father dealing with three cowboy sons had far less of the righteousness of the Lone Ranger, but public tastes had shifted away from the austere, masked figure. Bonanza appeared on NBC between 1959 and 1973, a span of 430 episodes.

Ultimately, the ideal of the lone dispenser of justice grew too distant from television audiences. Peaking in the 1960s, when horses galloped through most of primetime programming on all three networks, the cowboy faded into the sunset.

The return of the Western is repeatedly announced, but never arrives. The Lone Ranger lives on, though, in innumerable television heroes, who borrow his stern, unyielding quest for justice.

If he stages a comeback, he’ll need a stronger disguise than just a mask. We can believe almost any improbability in a hero, but in our globally networked world, a secret identity is unimaginable.

Click here to read “Hi-yo, Silver!” by J. Bryan, III, October 14, 1939 (PDF).

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  • David Goldwasser

    I receive more enjoyment from radio than from television. Radio is a real experience while television appears mechanical and artificial.