The series Gunsmoke was the number one ranked show on TV between 1957 and 1961. And, although it ran for an impressive 20 seasons, from 1955 to 1975, it was almost canceled after its 12th season. But, apparently, CBS’s president’s wife made a fuss about it (she was clearly a fan of the show), and so the network canceled Gilligan’s Island instead.
Gunsmoke actually started out as a radio series before it became one of the longest-running scripted series in TV history with 635 episodes (a record only surpassed by The Simpsons in its 29th season). The show, for the few who don’t know or don’t remember, was about the exploits of lawman Marshal Dillon. The show was noted for being a little more grounded than other Western shows, and it left a lasting impression on America and its viewers. That said, it’s high time to take a look back at many people’s favorite Western show…
Just One Kiss
Gunsmoke didn’t really have a romantic storyline that ran throughout the series, but you would think that the main character, Matt Dillon, would have had at least a few potential lovers. Well, that wasn’t the case. Throughout the entire 20-season run, the actor James Arness only kissed one person, and that was Michael Learned from The Waltons.
James Arness played U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon, who was responsible for recognizing who was coming to Dodge City to cause trouble and who was only passing through. Fans know that Dillon was a man of few words; however, when he did speak, people tended to listen. And if they didn’t… well, uh oh.
A Whole Other Kitty
Before Gunsmoke premiered on TV, the story was on the radio but with a different cast. The radio cast was also very different from the characters we got to see on the small screen. Kitty Russell (played by Amanda Blake), for one, was an altogether different type of woman.
Although it was never confirmed, it was heavily implied by the show’s creator, Norman McDonnell, that Kitty was an escort. For instance, when he said, “She is just someone Matt needs every so often.” When the show was later adapted for television, the writers changed Kitty’s character to a much more family-friendly kind of woman. After all, it was the ‘50s and ‘60s (when conservatism was at its finest).
Soldier Turned TV Star
Before landing the role of Matt Dillon, James Arness was in the U.S. Army, having served during World War II. In 1944, he was involved in Operation Shingle as a rifleman and happened to severely damage his leg and foot. That injury ended up being long-lasting and left a huge impact on his walking.
That said, whenever Arness had to shoot a scene for Gunsmoke in which there was a lot of walking, he needed to give that scene priority over all the others. That way, he would be able to give his leg the time it needed to rest and for him to recover before moving on to the rest of the shooting.
A Strange Reason to Leave
Glenn Strange, who played Sam Noonan, was a real life cowboy turned actor who certainly had a huge impact on his Gunsmoke co-stars. When he was 74 years old, the actor died of lung cancer, two years before the show wrapped up.
Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty, took the loss especially hard. So much so that she couldn’t handle going on and was thus written out of the show the following year. Buck Taylor, who played Newly O’Brien, was also so fond of Strange that he named his third son after him, calling him Cooper Glenn Taylor.
They Didn’t Even Know
Many Gunsmoke fans were bothered by how the series ended. It’s probably because many of them were expecting a grand finale, which only makes sense considering it was the end of an era. After all, it was a popular show that lasted for 20 years.
The writers decided not to tie up any loose ends in the finale of Gunsmoke. But the truth is that there weren’t many loose ties. The rather boring and sudden ending confused even the main cast, and that’s because they had no idea at all that the 20th season of the show was indeed the last one.
A Regretful Limp
Over the many years, fans have come up with several theories as to why Dennis Weaver’s character, Chester Goode, had a limp. It was reported that the producers of the show told Weaver to limp in order for him to look shorter than he really was.
However, there was another rumor that Weaver added the limp himself as a way to back up his country accent and stand out even more. As for the in-show explanation, his limp was acquired during the Civil War. In the end, though, Weaver said he regretted giving Chester a limp because it was a lot of work to keep it up!
His Biggest Role
Roger Ewing’s most remarkable character of his whole career was the role of Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood, aka Thad. Ewing played him for two seasons, then basically fell off the radar.
He has been out of the industry loop for over 40 years since his involvement in show business. Ewing said he appreciated his anonymity for that time period, explaining that that he doesn’t look for fame and recognition. Ewing is an incredibly private person, and the now 78-year-old chose to not indulge in the modern world of celebrity.
The Man Every Guy Wanted to Be
Reports state that 26 different actors were considered for the role of Matt Dillon, which comes as no surprise given that the series succeeded mainly because of this character. He was basically responsible for the show’s success.
The man who voiced Dillon in the original radio show was William Conrad, who was one of the first actors considered for the role. Raymond Burr was another favorite considered for the role. However, producer Charles Marquis Warren said Burr was “too big.” Other actors considered for the part were John Pickard and Denver Pyle.
Second Time’s a Charm
Despite being from Missouri, Dennis Weaver didn’t really harbor a country accent. And because of this, he thought it would really injure his chances of being cast for the role of Chester when he was auditioning. He was convinced that he didn’t get the gig after his first audition.
He felt like he gave a sub-par performance. He believed it so much that he actually begged the producers to allow him to audition another time. So, for his second audition, he put in extra effort, with a country accent an all. The rest, of course, is history.
It Could Have Been Polly
Matt Dillon wasn’t the only character that was sought after. A large number of actresses went in to audition for the role of Miss Kitty. The actress Polly Bond was originally picked for the role.
It even seemed like the ideal career move for her – someone who starred in Westerns when she was a child. While she was chosen for the role, she ultimately turned it down because she wanted to focus on her family. Little did she know, though, that the role would have guaranteed her work for at least 20 years.
“Get the Hell Out of Dodge”
They say that some of the most iconic sayings have the most humble beginnings. For instance, take the phrase, “Get the hell out of Dodge.” Over time, this phrase meant getting out of trouble quickly or leaving town with haste.
Curious as to the origin? Well, this phrase actually originates from Gunsmoke and refers to Dodge City, Kansas, where the series is set. The bad guys in the show used the phrase whenever Dillon and the gang one-upped them. There you go, folks. Now you know where it came from.
Thanks a Lot, Gunsmoke
Despite being as popular as ever during its entire run, Gunsmoke was almost canceled in 1967 by CBS. The network’s president at the time, William Paley, as well as his wife, were massive fans of Gunsmoke and simply didn’t want the show to end.
In fact, they loved the show so much that he ended up moving it into the time slot that Gilligan’s Island had: 8 p.m. on Monday evenings. Because this prime time slot switch, Gilligan’s Island came to a sudden and early halt. Gunsmoke fans were happy. Gilligan’s Island’s fans? Not so much.
Every Single Episode
James Arness didn’t take a break during his time with the Gunsmoke cast. Whereas the rest of the cast (and their characters) sometimes missed an episode, the writers and producers were insistent that Matt Dillon showed up in every single episode.
What that means is that Arness appeared as Dillon for a total of 635 episodes. Kelsey Grammer, on Frasier, is the only other actor to have played a character on prime time TV in America for a longer amount of time. Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams, only missed six episodes of Gunsmoke. And he had a good reason: a heart attack.
Buck the Artist
Many good artists are able to adapt easily and learn different mediums without too much of a challenge. This was proven true in Buck Taylor’s case. His character of Newly O’Brien was an evolved Western character who added to the show during the ‘60s, adding a bit of youth to the mix.
Nowadays, Taylor has become a painter who recently painted a portrait of James Arness. The 82-year-old has made quite a name for himself as an artist. Many of his paintings are on display at some of the biggest rodeos in Texas.
Let the Characters Live On
James Arness was seemingly unable to let go of Matt Dillon. He did, after all, play the character for two full decades. After the original run of Gunsmoke wrapped in 1975, Arness was asked over and over again to come take up the role again.
CBS later aired the TV movie in 1987, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor came back to reprise their role, but Milburn Stone passed away in 1980, seven years before the movie aired. He was 75 years old. Arness went on to star in the five reunion movies of Gunsmoke.
The Dirty Sally Spinoff
Since Gunsmoke was so successful, CBS made a spin-off series called Dirty Sally. (Remember that?) The show only had one season, though, and Jeanette Nolan was the star. She had been in Orson Welles’ 1948 Macbeth and the show The Virginian.
Nolan played Sally, an older woman who left Dodge City with Dack Rambo. They were in search of gold in the mines of California. It ran for one season, so that show wasn’t all that popular, but Nolan still received a nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
A Debilitating Condition
It wasn’t only Arness’ battle scars from the war that left a lasting impression on his acting. During the second half of his tenure on Gunsmoke, he suffered from a severe case of arthritis. The condition only deteriorated over the years.
It ultimately led to him not being physically able to work the hours that he was accustomed to working. In an attempt to manage it, Arness and the producers agreed that he could shoot all his scenes for one episode in one (particularly long) day so that he had enough time to rest.
Changing the Opening Scene?
Do you remember the opening credits for Gunsmoke? Well, they remained relatively unchanged for most of its 20-year run. The first-ever episode saw Matt Dillon standing up to another gunman. The creators loved that scene so much that they decided to start every episode with it.
Eventually, though, the opening credits scene was changed by the early ‘70s, just a few years before the show ended. And the change was due to censorship and politics: It was after the intensity of anti-violence protests and politics that were happening at the time.
Getting the Praise It Deserves
Gunsmoke wasn’t just a major hit with fans; it was also a show that did well with critics. For a long time, Gunsmoke has been considered the greatest Western of its time. Through all the seasons, it gained 15 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning four of them!
One of the most notable wins, out of all 15, was when in 1958, Dennis Weaver received the award for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series. Milburn Stone ended up winning the same award 10 years later. It’s another way of showing that the show was a critically acclaimed hit as well!
The First Matt Dillon
As we mentioned, before it was a TV series, it was a radio show. So, before James Arness ever became the beloved Matt Dillon on our screens, the character was played by William Conrad on our radio dials.
Conrad even continued on as Dillon after the TV show began and played that very role until 1961. Conrad was also considered for the role of Dillon on the TV series, but the creators ultimately decided to switch it up and go for Arness instead. Conrad’s weight was rumored as a factor in that decision.
The Marshall Dillon Show
One key thing that proved the impact that Gunsmoke had on wider society during this period was its consistently good ratings. Between 1957 and 1961, it was the number one show in the all of the United States.
In general, the ratings were remarkable throughout its 20-year run; however, the ratings started to dip once the producers added an extra half an hour to each episode. It was originally 30 minutes long. Gunsmoke has also retitled Marshal Dillon in syndication, from 1961 to 1964. And in the UK, it was retitled Gun Law.
The Evolution of Gunsmoke
What made Gunsmoke even more successful was that its creators were determined to stay relevant, despite the fact that the “times were a changin’.” Because of the media’s advancement in technology, so many other shows simply failed to be of interest and fell out of popularity, and disappeared.
Unlike other shows at the time, Gunsmoke lived on for over 40 years, in one format or another. Its evolution involved starting out as a radio series, then transforming into a black and white primetime show, then becoming an hour-long color TV show. It was then made into five reunion movies.
Last One Standing
Only one of the main actors of Gunsmoke has gone on to become a true Hollywood superstar. Yes, you know who it is. Burt Reynolds was the last man standing. He was one of the few remaining cast members alive until he died in 2018, at the age of 82.
Reynolds, who played Quint Asper, appeared in 50 episodes of Gunsmoke during the 1960s. He went on to star in a number of iconic movies, such as Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, and Boogie Nights.
Thanks to John Wayne
There was a rumor that John Wayne, the Western legend, was offered the part of Matt Dillon, making him one of the 26 who auditioned for the part. Well, rumors are just that – not true! Wayne did, however, encourage James Arness to take the job when he told him he was offered it.
Arness was reportedly unsure about whether or not to take it at first. In fact, a lot of people advised him not to take it, seeing as they thought it would damage his career. Wayne believed the opposite to be true and, boy, was he right.
Cameos by Future Star Trek Stars
Here’s one for the Star Trek fans (and we know you’re out there). Before Star Trek was ever made, the show’s main characters were all in Dodge City, making cameo appearances. Throughout different stages of Gunsmoke, cameos by various Star Trek characters popped up on set.
That’s right, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan appeared in one episode each, while Leonard Nimoy appeared in four episodes. Gunsmoke actually had many notable guest appearances, including the likes of Bette Davis, Jon Voight, Martin Landau, Sam Elliott, and Nick Nolte.
Doc’s First Name
Everyone knew Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name throughout the Fistful of Dollars trilogy. But, for the first 16 seasons of Gunsmoke, Milburn Stone was another man with no name. As we know, he was called Doc, or Doc Adams.
The writers chose to never give him a first name. In the end, though, Stone was given the opportunity to name Doc himself. He did know the character better than anyone else. So, he chose to call himself Galen. He named the character after the ancient Greek physician and medical researcher Galen.
Future Hollywood Stars
Gunsmoke saw a lot of future superstars go through Dodge City. A number of aspiring actors had cameos on the show, only to later go on to become big names in Hollywood. Actors like Harrison Ford and Jodie Foster were both in an episode, Foster when she was just a young girl.
There was a rumor that Albert Einstein appeared on Gunsmoke. But he died on April 18, 1955, nearly five months before Gunsmoke aired. The likely origin of the rumor was referring to Stephen Hawking, who appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993. Actor Brent Spiner said it was “the most notable moment in television history since Albert Einstein guest-starred on Gunsmoke.”
The Very Brady Cameos
Another popular show, whose main characters appeared in episodes of Gunsmoke, was The Brady Bunch. In Seasons 14 and 15, three young members of the Brady family had cameos in a few episodes.
Christopher Knight, who played the role of Peter Brady, appeared in the episode “The Miracle Man” in Season 14 of Gunsmoke. Later in the same season, Eve Plumb, who played Jan, was in an episode. Then, Susan Olsen, who played Cindy Brady, was in episodes in Seasons 14 and 15.
The Last to Be Killed
One of the most notorious Gunsmoke actors was Gary Busey, who had a very small cameo – we almost missed it – before becoming a huge Hollywood success. His cameo was only for one episode, yet it was still a very important one in the show’s history.
Busey played Harve Daley in one of the final episodes in 1975. Why is it historic? Well, it’s because he is the final character to be killed on Gunsmoke. That alone is a remarkable feat. Busey, by the way, is 76 years old now. Time flies, huh?
The Record Was Beat
Despite being off the air for almost 50 years, Gunsmoke held onto the primetime record for having the most episodes on one TV show (635). But then along came The Simpsons, taking over Matt Dillon and the gang for the being the holder of the longest running show title.
In May 2019, Matt Groening’s animated show aired its 662nd episode, beating Gunsmoke’s record by about 30 episodes. Gunsmoke aired all those episodes in 20 years, whereas The Simpsons took 30 years to beat the record. Simpsons is a remarkable show, no doubt, but it ain’t no Western!
No Gunsmoke behinds-the-scenes list would be complete without at least mentioning the iconic character of Festus Haggen, played by Ken Curtis. The grumpy-but-lovable, intelligent-but-illiterate Sheriff was a beloved character who first showed up in the eight season. By the ninth, Festus was a mainstay of the show.
Not many fans know that the character was actually created by Curtis, who modeled Festus after a man he had known in his childhood who was nicknamed Cedar Jack due to the fact that he made his living making cedar posts for wooden fences.
James Arness: 1923 – 2011
James spent most of his life playing Matt Dillon. He reprised the role for the reunion in 1987, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. He played Dillon in the TV movie of the show in the ‘90s, too. Arness has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, in 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame.
In 1996, TV Guide ranked Arness number 20 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list. The actor died on June 3, 2011, from natural causes. He was 88 years old.
Burt Reynolds: 1936 – 2018
Burt Reynolds joined the cast in 1962 as Quint Asper, a Native American and Caucasian blacksmith who stuck around for three years. At that point, Reynolds was just getting started in Hollywood. No one really knew just how big of a star he would become. He was, after all, considered a sex symbol in his heyday.
Sadly, he died of a heart attack on September 6, 2018, at the age of 82. On the day of his death, Antenna TV, the channel that airs The Tonight Show, aired an episode featuring an interview with Reynolds.
Dennis Weaver: 1924 – 2006
When he joined the cast of Gunsmoke, Weaver was still working odd jobs, such as delivering flowers. Lucky for him, he landed the role of Chester Goode. He even received an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 1959.
After his role as Chester made him famous, Weaver went on to star on other shows, including Gentle Ben and Kentucky Jones during the 1960s. He also got two more Emmy nods for his role in the ‘70s hit McCloud. He ended up passing away in 2006 from cancer. He was 81 years old.
Amanda Blake Wasn’t Happy About the Finale
After it was decided that the 20th season would be the last, Blake was particularly unhappy about it the fact the cast wasn’t even informed. She had left the show following its 19th season and was not involved with the final season in any way.
Still, she took offense at how the network execs treated the show. The Gunsmoke Chronicles noted that Blake was in New York shortly after the series was canceled, and while “Riding past CBS headquarters, she remarked, ‘I think I’ll go in there and hit [CBS president] Bill Paley over the head with a brickbat.'”
“Hard Labor” Was the Last Episode
Like many shows, Gunsmoke didn’t air its episodes in order. “Hard Labor” was episode 20 of Season 20 and the final story shot for the series. On an unrelated note, Gunsmoke was Bruce Boxleitner’s fourth television episode ever.
Boxleitner became a major star in the ‘80s thanks to Tron and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. But in the mid – ‘70s, after appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hawaii Five-O, the actor made his fourth guest spot on Gunsmoke. He clicked with James Arness as the two soon co-starred in How the West Was Won.
Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge
In 1987, CBS made the reunion movie Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. James Arness, Amanda Blake, Buck Taylor, and Fran Ryan returned to reprise their roles. Since Milburn Stone died in 1980, the role of Doc was not recast.
Ken Curtis was offered to participate, but he balked at the salary offer, saying that he should be paid based on Festus’ importance in the hierarchy of the characters. The screenwriters’ response was to make Newly the new Dodge City marshal. The film was shot in Alberta, Canada, and featured a now-retired Marshal Dillon attacked a former rival head back to Dodge City to entrap him.
Gunsmoke: The Last Apache
In 1990, the second TV film, Gunsmoke: The Last Apache, premiered. This time, Amanda Blake wasn’t involved since she died the year before. So, the writers decided to revisit a certain 1973 episode for the film, “Matt’s Love Story.”
That episode was noted for the marshal’s first overnight visit to a woman’s lodgings. In the film, Michael Learned returns as Mike, played Mike Yardner, reveals to Dillon that he’s the father of their daughter Beth (played by Amy Stock-Poynton). Dodge City was never seen again.
The other films were Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992), Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (1993), and Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice (1994).
The 50th Anniversary
In 2006, in honor of Gunsmoke’s 50th anniversary on TV, selected episodes were released on DVD in box sets. Paramount Home Entertainment and CBS DVD released the series in its entirety on DVD for 13 years, between 2007 to 2020.
There you have it, folks! We hope you enjoyed going back in time to visit the cast and set of Gunsmoke. Now, if you have a chance, you can go ahead and watch an episode or two. Or at least just find the theme song on YouTube and feel nostalgic for a moment!