Gunsmoke is an American radio and television Western drama series created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston. The stories take place in and around Dodge City, Kansas, during the settlement of the American West.
The radio version ran from 1952 to 1961, and John Dunning writes that among radio drama enthusiasts "Gunsmoke is routinely placed among the best shows of any kind and any time." The television version ran for 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975, and it is currently tied with Law & Order as the longest running primetime drama in U.S. television history. In 2009, the half-hour animated series The Simpsons entered its 21st season, becoming the first show to surpass it in longevity.
In the late 1940s, CBS chairman William S. Paley, a fan of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe radio serial, asked his programming chief, Hubell Robinson, to develop a hardboiled Western series, a show about a "Philip Marlowe of the Old West." Robinson instructed his West Coast CBS Vice-President, Harry Ackerman, who had developed the Philip Marlowe series, to take on the task.
Ackerman and his scriptwriters, Mort Fine and David Friedkin, created an audition script called "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye". Two auditions were created in 1949. The first was very much like a hardboiled detective series and starred Rye Billsbury as Dillon; the second starred Straight Arrow actor Howard Culver in a more Western, lighter version of the same script. CBS liked the Culver version better, and Ackerman was told to proceed.
But there was a complication. Culver's contract as the star of Straight Arrow would not allow him to do another Western series. The project was shelved for three years, when MacDonnell and Meston discovered it creating an adult Western series of their own.
MacDonnell and Meston wanted to create a radio Western for adults, in contrast to the prevailing juvenile fare such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas during the thriving cattle days of the 1870s. Dunning notes, "The show drew critical acclaim for unprecedented realism."
Radio cast and character biographies
The radio series aired from April 26, 1952 ("Billy the Kid," written by Walter Newman) until June 18, 1961 on CBS. It starred William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon; Howard McNear as Doc Charles Adams; Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell; and Parley Baer as Dillon's assistant Chester Proudfoot.
Conrad was one of the last actors who auditioned for the role of Marshal Dillon. With a powerful, distinctive voice, Conrad was already one of radio's busiest actors. Though Meston championed him, MacDonnell thought Conrad might be overexposed. During his audition, however, Conrad won over MacDonnell after reading only a few lines. Dillon as portrayed by Conrad was a lonely, isolated man, toughened by a hard life. Meston relished the upending of cherished Western fiction clichés and felt that few Westerns gave any inkling of how brutal the Old West was in reality. Dunning writes that Meston was especially disgusted by the archetypal Western hero and set out "to destroy that type of character he loathed." In Meston's view, "Dillon was almost as scarred as the homicidal psychopaths who drifted into Dodge from all directions."
Chester's character had no surname until Baer ad libbed "Proudfoot" during an early rehearsal. The amiable character was usually described as Dillon's "assistant," but the December 13, 1952 episode "Post Martin," Dillon described Chester as Dillon's deputy. The TV series changed Chester's last name to Goode.
Doc Adams was iconoclastic and grumpy, but McNear's performances became more warm-hearted. In the January 31, 1953 episode "Cavalcade," Doc Adams' backstory is revealed: His real name is Calvin Moore, educated in Boston, and he practiced as a doctor for a year in Richmond, Virginia where he fell in love with a beautiful young woman who was also being courted by a wealthy young man named Roger Beauregard. Beauregard forced Doc into fighting a duel with him, resulting in Beauregard's being shot and killed. Eeven though it was a fair duel, because Doc was a Yankee and an outsider he was forced to flee. The young woman fled after him and they were married in St. Louis, but two months later she died of typhus. Doc wandered throughout the territories until he settled in Dodge City seventeen years later under the name of "Charles Adams." For sixteen years on television, a sign hung over "Doc's" office that read "Dr. G. Adams". Toward the end of the series' run, Milburn Stone was given free rein to choose the character's first name. The actor chose the surname of a medical researcher named Galen as a first name.
Georgia Ellis appeared in the first episode "Billy the Kid" (April 26, 1952) as "Francie Richards," a former girlfriend of Matt Dillon and the widow of a criminal. "Miss Kitty" did not appear on the radio series until the May 10, 1952 episode "Jaliscoe." Kitty's profession was hinted at, but never explicit; in a 1953 interview with Time, MacDonnell declared, "Kitty is just someone Matt has to visit every once in a while. We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, plain and simple." The television show portrayed Kitty as a saloon proprietor, not a prostitute.
Distinction from other radio westerns
Gunsmoke was often a somber program, particularly in its early years. Dunning writes that Dillon "played his hand and often lost. He arrived too late to prevent a lynching. He amputated a dying man's leg and lost the patient anyway. He saved a girl from brutal rapists then found himself unable to offer her what she needed to stop her from moving into...life as a prostitute." (Dunning, 304) Some listeners, such as Dunning, argue the radio version was more realistic. Episodes were aimed at adults and featured some of the most explicit content of their time, including violent crimes, scalpings, massacres, and opium addicts. Many episodes ended on a somber note, and villains often got away with their crimes. Nonetheless, thanks to the subtle scripts and outstanding ensemble cast, over the years the program evolved into a warm, often humorous celebration of human nature.
Apart from the doleful tone, Gunsmoke was distinct from other radio westerns, as the dialogue was often slow and halting, and due to the outstanding sound effects, listeners had a nearly palpable sense of the prairie where the show was set. The effects were subtle but multilayered, giving the show a spacious feel. John Dunning wrote, "The listener heard extraneous dialogue in the background, just above the muted shouts of kids playing in an alley. He heard noises from the next block, too, where the inevitable dog was barking." (Dunning, 305)
Talk of adapting Gunsmoke to television
Not long after the radio show began, there was talk of adapting it to television. Privately, MacDonnell had a guarded interest in taking the show to television, but publicly, he declared that "our show is perfect for radio," and he feared that, as Dunning writes, "Gunsmoke confined by a picture could not possibly be as authentic or attentive to detail." (Dunning, 305) "In the end," wrote Dunning, "CBS simply took it away from" MacDonnell and began preparing for the television version. (Dunning, 305)
Conrad and the others were given auditions, but they were little more than token efforts—especially in Conrad's case, due to his obesity. However, Meston was kept as the main writer. In the early years, a majority of the TV episodes were adapted from the radio scripts, often using identical scenes and dialogue. Dunning wrote, "That radio fans considered the TV show a sham and its players impostors should surprise no one. That the TV show was not a sham is due in no small part to the continued strength of Meston's scripts." (Dunning, 304)
MacDonnell and Meston continued the radio version of Gunsmoke until 1961, making it one of the most enduring vintage radio dramas. The Gunsmoke radio theme song and later TV theme was titled "Old Trails," also known as "Boothill." The theme was written by Rex Koury and Glenn Spencer. The original radio version was conducted by Koury. The TV version was thought to have been first conducted by CBS west coast music director Lud Gluskin.
Conrad directed two television episodes, in 1963 and 1971, while McNear appeared on six, playing characters other than Doc, including three times as storekeeper Howard Rudd.
"Good evening. My name's Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I've been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I've made a lot of pictures out here, all kinds, and some of them have been Westerns. And that's what I'm here to tell you about tonight: a Western—a new television show called Gunsmoke. No, I'm not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it's the best thing of its kind that's come along, and I hope you'll agree with me; it's honest, it's adult, it's realistic. When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He's a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you've had to get used to me! And now I'm proud to present my friend Jim Arness in Gunsmoke."
The television series ran from September 10, 1955 to March 31, 1975 on CBS with 635 total episodes. Until 2010, it had the longest run of any scripted primetime American television series with recurring characters. As of 2010, it is fourth globally, tied with Doctor Who, Taggart, The Simpsons and Law & Order.
Losing the role embittered Conrad for years, though he later starred in another CBS television series, Cannon (1971–1976). Denver Pyle was also considered for the role, as was Raymond Burr, who was ultimately seen as too heavyset for the part. According to a James Arness interview, John Wayne was offered the role, but would not do it; Wayne was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and at that time, working in television was a step down in prestige for a star actor.
In the end, the primary roles were all recast, with Arness taking the lead role of Marshal Matt Dillon upon the recommendation of John Wayne, who also introduced the first episode of the series; Dennis Weaver playing Chester Goode; Milburn Stone being cast as Dr. Galen "Doc" Adams; and Amanda Blake taking on the role of Miss Kitty Russell, owner of the Long Branch Saloon. MacDonnell became the associate producer of the TV show and later the producer. Meston was named head writer. Arness played the same character on the same scripted series for 20 years - a record at the time.
In 1963, singer and character actor Ken Curtis had a guest role as a shady ladies' man. Burt Reynolds was added to the show's lineup, as the "halfbreed" blacksmith Quint Asper. In 1964, Weaver left the series to venture out as the lead in his own TV series, Kentucky Jones. In 1965, Ken Curtis returned and was cast to play the stubbornly illiterate hillbilly Festus Haggen. The character came to town (in an episode titled "Us Haggens") to avenge the death of his twin brother, Fergus Haggen, and another brother, Jeff Haggen, and decided to stay in Dodge when the deed was done. Initially on the fringes of Dodge society, Festus was slowly phased in as a reliable sidekick to Matt Dillon and was eventually made a deputy. In the episode "Alias Festus Haggen," he is mistaken for a robber and killer whom he has to expose to free himself (both parts played by Curtis). In a comic relief episode ("Mad Dog"), another case of mistaken identity forces Festus to fight three sons of a man killed by his cousin. Other actors who played Dillon's deputies for two and a half to seven-year stints included Roger Ewing (1966–1968) as Thad Greenwood and Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper (1962–1965). Buck Taylor, who played gunsmith Newly O'Brian from 1967–1975, also served as one of Dillon's deputies, and a back-up doctor, having some university studies in medicine.
The back stories of some of the main characters were largely left to the imagination of the viewer. Little was said about Matt's familial background, apart from his wayward youth. Kitty Russell, born in New Orleans and raised by a flashy foster mother, apparently had no siblings. And poor Doc Adams, didn't even have a first name until 1972, when visits by a female doctor/ love interest and a childhood friend judge, forced the writers to provide the aged sawbones with a given name. Stone chose Galen, a renowned medical researcher. Barkeep Sam was said to be married, though his wife never made an appearance. Quint Asper's white father was killed by white scavengers. Thad Greenwood's father, a storekeep, was also murdered. The question as to whether Chester's right leg was wooden or just maimed, was never fuller answered. Doc and he never discussed the issue, which would have painted the free spirited, comic deputy with a darker tone.
While Dillon and Miss Kitty clearly had a close personal relationship, the two never married. In a July 2, 2002 Associated Press interview with Bob Thomas, Arness explained, "If they were man and wife, it would make a lot of difference. The people upstairs decided it was better to leave the show as it was, which I totally agreed with." In the episode "Waste", featuring Johnny Whitaker as a boy with a prostitute mother, her madam questions Dillon as to why the law overlooks Miss Kitty's enterprise. It appears that bordellos could exist "at the law's discretion" (meaning the marshal's). Miss Kitty was written out in 1974 when Blake decided not to return for the show's 20th (and final) season.
Differences between the characters on the radio and television versions
There were differences between the characters on the radio and TV versions of Gunsmoke. In the radio series, Doc was acerbic, somewhat mercenary, and borderline alcoholic — at least in the program's early years. The television Doc, though still crusty, was in many ways softer and warmer. Miss Kitty, who in the radio series likely engaged in prostitution, was viewed more as "the proprietor of a saloon" on the television series, and except for a few early scripts taken from the radio series, viewers only saw Miss Kitty as a kindhearted businesswoman. Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that several scenes depicted one of her "girls" leading a cowboy to the second floor of the saloon, where the boarding-house was situated.
From 1955 to 1961, Gunsmoke was a half-hour show (re-titled Marshal Dillon in syndication). It then went to an hour-long format. The series was re-titled "Gun Law" in the UK.
Gunsmoke was TV's No. 1 ranked show from 1957 to 1961 before slipping into a decline after expanding to an hour. In 1967, the show's 12th season, CBS planned to cancel the series, but widespread viewer reaction (including a mention in Congress and pressure from the wife of the head of programming at CBS) prevented its demise. The show continued on in a different time slot: early evening on Mondays instead of Saturday nights. This seemingly minor change led to a spike in ratings that saw the series once again reach the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings until the 1973–1974 television season. In September 1975, the show was canceled after a twenty-year run; it was replaced by Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs Rhoda and Phyllis. 30 TV Westerns came and went during its 20-year tenure, and Gunsmoke was the only Western still airing when it was canceled.
Arness and Stone remained with the show for its entire run (although Stone missed seven episodes in 1971 due to a heart-related illness and was temporarily replaced by Pat Hingle, who played "Doctor John Chapman" while Doc Adams ostensibly left Dodge to further his medical studies on the East Coast).
The entire cast was stunned by the cancellation, as they were unaware CBS was considering it. According to Arness, "We didn't do a final, wrap-up show. We finished the 20th year, we all expected to go on for another season, or two or three. The (network) never told anybody they were thinking of canceling." The cast and crew read the news in the trade papers. (Associated Press, July 2, 2002, Bob Thomas)
In 1987, many of the original cast reunited for the TV movie, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, filmed in Alberta, Canada. Ken Curtis declined returning, citing a contract dispute, saying, "As Dillon's right hand man, I felt the offer should approximate Miss Blake's." Instead, Buck Taylor became Dodge's new marshal, though the retired Matt Dillon was the hero. A huge ratings success, it led to four more TV films being made in the U.S. After Amanda Blake's death, the writers built on the 1973 two-part episodic romance of "Matt's Love Story", which was noted for the marshal's first overnight visit to a female's lodgings. In the episode, Matt loses his memory and his heart during a brief liaison with "Mike" Michael Learned of The Waltons. In preserving the ethics of the era and the heretofore flawless hero's character, the healed Dillon returns to Dodge City. Movie number two, Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990), had Learned reprising the role of "Mike Yardley" to divulge that Matt and "Mike" conceived a daughter who is now a young woman named Beth. Other films (which all featured daughter Beth) included Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992), Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (1993), and Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice (1994).
In August of 2009, CBS announced development of a film version prequel to reboot the series. National Treasure: Book of Secrets writer Gregory Poirier was hired to write the script.
In "TV Bootleg Favs", (a book of lists about the questionable but thriving practice of copying TV shows from networks and reselling on DVD), "Gunsmoke" ranks fifth, (Top seven: NCIS, The Simpsons, Dancing With The Stars, CSI, Gunsmoke, The Facts Of Life, Mayberry RFD). Many of these series are not yet fully available on DVD).
In syndication, the entire 20-year run of Gunsmoke is separated into three packages by CBS Paramount Television:
1955–1961 half-hour episodes: These episodes are sometimes seen in their original format and sometimes in the Marshal Dillon format. When first-run prime-time episodes of Gunsmoke expanded to an hour in Fall 1961, CBS-TV reran the half-hour episodes as Marshal Dillon on the network on Tuesday nights from 1961 through 1964. These were later rerun in syndication. General syndication ended in the 1980s, but they do air occasionally on cable TV. Local stations would show the re-titled Marshal Dillon version of the series, while the series under the original Gunsmoke title (with some episodes under the Marshal Dillon retitling) were seen in the late 1990s on TV Land.
1961–1966 one-hour black-and-white episodes: These episodes have not been widely seen in regular syndication since the 1980s, although selected episodes did air from the mid 1980s through the early 1990s on CBN Cable and The Family Channel, and later on the Encore Westerns Channel on a three-year contract that ended circa 2006. As of January 2010, Encore Westerns is again airing the episodes.
1966–1975 one-hour color episodes: The last nine seasons of the Western, these are the most widely syndicated episodes of the entire series' run and are still aired on many stations, including a popular run on TV Land.
Certain selected episodes are available on DVD in three different box sets. Twelve episodes from 1955 to 1964 were selected for the Gunsmoke: Volume I box set, and another twelve episodes from 1964 to 1975 were selected for the Gunsmoke: Volume II box set. Both volume box sets are also available as a combined single "Gift Box Set". A third unique DVD box set known as Gunsmoke: The Directors Collection was also released with ten selected episodes from certain seasons throughout the series' twenty year history. All of these box sets are available on Region 1 DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment and CBS DVD.
Paramount Home Entertainment and CBS DVD has later begun releasing season sets or "half-season" sets. Season 1 on DVD in Region 1 was released on July 17, 2007. Season 2: Volume 1 was released on January 8, 2008. Season 2: Volume 2 was released on May 27, 2008. Season 3: Volume 1, which features the first 20 episodes of season 3 was released on December 9, 2008. Season 3, Volume 2 was released on May 26, 2009.
Photograph is from the early 1960s TV series showing (l to r) Ken Curtis & James Arness and was Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.