Joel McCrea, 84, an actor who became one of the best of Hollywood's make-believe saddle heroes, died of lung ailments Oct. 20 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills.

Tall and taciturn, good-looking and good-humored, Mr. McCrea made 86 motion pictures in a career that spanned three decades, and he starred in many of them. Although best remembered for his cowboy roles, he was a versatile actor who handled light comedy and adventurous melodrama with the same skill he brought to Westerns.

Some of his best-known westerns were "The Virginian," "Union Pacific" and "Wells Fargo." Other films in which he starred included the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Foreign Correspondent" and the Preston Sturges comedy "Sullivan's Travels," in which he played a Hollywood director who sets off across the country to find out what real life is like. Earlier this month "Sullivan's Travels" was listed by the Library of Congress as one of 25 outstanding films worthy of historic preservation.

Mr. McCrea made several pictures with his wife, actress Frances Dee, a leading lady of the 1930s, and one of their three sons, Joel Dee, who is known as Jody, played the deputy in McCrea's 1959-60 television series "Wichita Town."

A native of South Pasadena, Calif., Mr. McCrea grew up in Hollywood, the son of a successful executive. In 1928 he graduated from Pomona College, where he began acting in amateur roles, and began picking up occasional work as a movie extra.

His first feature role came in 1929 in "The Jazz Age," and he began winning starring roles the next year. Critics consider that his career peaked with "Foreign Correspondent," "Sullivan's Travels" and "Palm Springs Story," all made in the 1940s.

He was elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1958.

Mr. McCrea was reputed to be one of the wisest investors and wealthiest actors of his era with ranching and real estate interests.

In addition to his wife and son, Jody, now a rancher in New Mexico, he is survived by two other sons, David, also a rancher in New Mexico, and Peter, a film editor in Los Angeles.