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In a 1993 TV Guide article, Gunsmoke, the longest running Western drama, as well as the longest running prime-time show with continuing characters in history (from 1955 to 1975), was named one of the "All-Time-Best TV Programs." The magazine was succinct: "No contest, this was THE TV Western." The series marked a revolutionary approach to a familiar Westerns formula, and its popularity, which led to extensive merchandising that included Matt Dillon dolls, Gunsmoke trading cards, and comic books, precipitated a rash of TV Westerns—so much so, that at one point there were approximately 30 prime time contributions to the genre.

Originating as the vanguard of the "adult Western," the show had its genesis as a CBS radio drama that began in 1952, and endeavored to bring realism—and considerable violence—to standard heroics, claiming in its opening narration to be "the story of the violence that moved west and the man that moved with it." The premise involved the denizens of Dodge City, Kansas, circa 1873, who were protected by Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad), a tough but fair lawman, who often struggled to reconcile the differences between the law and his personal feelings. Dillon was assisted by the crusty but soft-hearted "Doc" Adams (Howard McNear), and loved by Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis), the owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

Praised as being better acted and scripted than other radio Westerns, the show enjoyed immense popularity, and its twice-weekly broadcasts were transmitted to U.S. forces abroad during the Korean War. The recipient of several broadcasting awards, Gunsmoke had been extensively researched by its writers, who injected such a sense of veracity into the scripts that the head of the Chamber of Commerce of Dodge City is said to have written the producers inquiring as to what years Matt Dillon served as sheriff.

While the radio version continued to run until 1961, the television version of the show debuted as a half-hour drama on September 10, 1955, introduced by John Wayne as "a new kind of Western." And so it proved. The opening episode, entitled "Matt Gets It," had its leading character getting shot and, as one critic described it, "left lying in the dusty streets of Dodge, ministered to by a cheap dance hall girl and a seedy looking doctor, while his crippled deputy stood by." This was a gritty and realistic departure from the formula wherein the heroes of other popular shows such as The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy were always larger than life and escaped such indignity.

The television incarnation also featured different actors. While the radio actors had been considered, the producers felt that the visual medium made strongly attractive physical attributes a major requirement, particularly for the role of Matt Dillon. Among the several replacements considered, who were either rejected, or who themselves turned down the offer because TV was still viewed by some as an unworthy medium, were Raymond Burr, Richard Boone, and Robert Stack. While the rumor that John Wayne was approached to play Dillon was without foundation, the big screen's most famous Western star did suggest a young actor that he'd worked with named James Arness. Beyond bit parts, Arness' claim to fame was playing the title character in Howard Hawks' sci-fi classic, The Thing (1950). However, his commanding six-foot-seven-inch frame and strong, silent demeanor secured him the role. Feature film veteran Milburn Stone was cast as Doc Adams, and Amanda Blake inherited the role of Kitty, both of them staying with the show for most of its run. Prior to his feature film career and TV star turn in McCloud, Dennis Weaver played Dillon's first deputy, Chester Goode. He was replaced in 1964 by Ken Curtis, a former singer with the Tommy Dorsey band who played scruffy hillbilly deputy Festus Haggen. Also of note was Burt Reynolds' pre-superstar turn as half-breed blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962 to 1965, during which time many opportunities were found to feature him without his shirt. After Reynolds' departure, Roger Ewing joined the show as the young novice, followed by Buck Taylor (son of actor Dub Taylor) who arrived in 1967 to play the humble gunsmith Newly O'Brian.

Debuting opposite the popular George Gobel Show, television's Gunsmoke was not an immediate hit, but its popularity rose steadily, taking it to number eight in the ratings in its second season. By its third season (1957/58), it displaced the ever-popular I Love Lucy to become number one, and remained there for the next four seasons. The series and its cast were all nominated for Emmys that year, with the show winning for Best Dramatic Series. (Dennis Weaver later won in 1959, and Milburn Stone in 1968.)

While the majority of the Gunsmoke radio episodes conveniently served as fodder for the teleplays, their brutality had to be toned down for the small screen. While William Conrad's Matt Dillon was a hardened, abrasive, and often pessimistic loner who could make tragic mistakes, Arness rendered the television Matt as a man of few words, vulnerable, often restraining his personal feelings in order to do the right thing, and never making a mistake. Likewise, while Georgia Ellis' Kitty was portrayed as a toughened whore and barfly who was nevertheless Matt's confidante, Amanda Blake became "Miss" Kitty, the owner of the Long Branch saloon who, as Blake contended, "had to walk a very narrow line between schoolmarm sweet and saloon hall tough." Owing to the restraint of the writing, many have speculated over the Matt-Kitty "friendship," but the chemistry between them, and the many plot lines requiring their sacrifices for each other, indicated deep and abiding love. That they never married is easily explained: as long as he remained a lawman Matt would not want to risk leaving Kitty a widow. Finally, while Howard McNear's Doc could be guilty of greed and cynicism on radio, Milburn Stone transformed the television character into an irreproachable ideal of the dedicated, kindly, and wise country doctor.

Like the radio show before it, the substance of Gunsmoke lay in its morality, which pitted the good people of Dodge City against the ugly forces of lawlessness. However, in remaining true to a realistic approach, the scripts not only avoided sentimentality and pat endings, but the writers made sure that, just as in life, the evildoers were not always brought to justice. Then, too, in response to the anti-violence movement of the 1960s, the show's emphasis shifted from physical confrontation and gunplay to dramatic situations that were more character and issue-driven. Gunsmoke began dealing with race, religion, and other social conflicts, and evolved into a sort of dramatic anthology series with the interaction between the regular characters taking a back seat to conflicts faced by characters (often played by guest stars) who were passing through Dodge.

Despite these changes, the central characters and setting of Gunsmoke took on a mythic status in America's collective consciousness. This lofty position was confirmed by events in the late 1960s. Despite its expansion to an hour, and the transition to color by 1966, the show so declined in ratings that CBS decided to cancel it at the end of the 1966/67 season, the producers claiming it to be the victim of "program fatigue." Public response, however, was immediate and vehement. Letter-writing campaigns were mounted, and CBS affiliates in the Midwest threatened to boycott all of the network's programs unless Gunsmoke returned. Senator Byrd even went so far as to criticize the network's decision from the floor of Congress. The end result was that CBS president William Paley interceded, and in a last-ditch effort, switched the show to Monday nights when it miraculously zoomed into the top ten until its run finally ended in 1975. It was the last prime time Western series on television.

After its initial run, Gunsmoke was revived in a succession of TV movies, beginning with Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987, which up to that date was the most expensive made-for-TV movie of all time. Costing $3.5 million, it featured James Arness, Amanda Blake, and Buck Taylor. The story had Kitty, who had left Dodge a year before the series' cancellation, back in her hometown, New Orleans. Matt Dillon has retired from the law to become a trapper, and Newly O'Brian is the new sheriff. The TV movie's popularity led to four further sequels in the early 1990s. In Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990), Matt learns that he had sired a daughter by Mike (Michael Learned), the woman he had become romantically involved with while suffering from amnesia in an earlier episode of the series, and sets out to look for the girl, who has been taken by an Indian tribe. The movie was dedicated to Amanda Blake, who, sadly, had recently died from AIDS. Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1991) concerned feuding in the Pleasant Valley Wars of the 1880s and the death of Mike. Gunsmoke: The Long Ride was broadcast in 1992, while the last, Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice (1993) found Matt Dillon owning his own ranch. It also revealed details of Matt's background, and the fact that he had been motivated to become a lawman because his father, a Texas Ranger, had been shot in the back and killed.

Gunsmoke retained an extensive supporting cast of townspeople, and supplied many character actors with the opportunity to play a variety of roles over the years. Victor French, later of Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame, played 19 different characters in the course of the run, and directed five episodes. Morgan Woodward, Jack Elam, Denver Pyle, Jim Davis, Claude Akins, Strother Martin, and Lane Bradbury appeared in ten or more roles, while one of Jeanette Nolan's nine roles—as itinerant "Dirty Sally"—resulted in a short-lived spin-off series in 1974. (Interestingly having been rejected for the television series, William Conrad went on to star in Cannon, Nero Wolfe, and Jake and the Fat Man on TV, while Howard McNear was Floyd the Barber in TV's The Andy Griffith Show).

Gunsmoke was in television's top ten most watched programs for 13 seasons and was named in first or second place as Best Western Series by the Motion Picture Daily annual television poll throughout its run. A 1966 episode entitled, "The Jailer," starring Bette Davis, was ranked 27th by TV Guide's 100 Greatest (Television) Episodes of All Time. All of the leading actors were inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, while James Arness received an International Broadcasting Award as Man of the Year in 1973, and in 1989 was voted the number six television star of all time by People magazine. The series also won several awards for writing and technical achievement in the course of its long run.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Barabas, SuzAnne, and Gabor Barabas. Gunsmoke. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1990.