Unless you’re a lot younger than I am, chances are this show was part of your life. Not only was Gunsmoke (1955-1975) TV’s longest running Western, it was also television’s longest running prime-time series with continuing characters. In total, 233 half-hour episodes and 400 hour episodes were filmed.
Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, between 1872, when the Santa Fe Railroad reached town, and 1885, when local farmers forced the end of the Texas cattle drives along the Western Trail. Dodge City, known as the “Queen of the Cow Towns,” the “Wicked Little City,” the “Gomorrah of the Plains,” had a reputation as a hostile, lawless town where the “fastest gun” ruled. As the opening of the show proclaimed: “Around Dodge City and in the territory on west, there’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers and that’s with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.”
The fictional marshall, Matt Dillon, was modeled after the real lawmen who “tamed” (or at least kept a lid on) Dodge City: US Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), Sheriff Bat Masterson (1856-1921), Sheriff Bill Tilghman (1854-1924), and Sheriff Charlie Bassett.Gunsmoke began on radio in 1952 with William Conrad reading the part of Matt Dillon (I actually remember this great radio version). The series was so successful that it was adapted for TV in 1955. Conrad, who had a fine radio voice, was a portly man who didn’t fit the visual image of Matt Dillon, so another actor had to be found. There is some dispute as to whether John Wayne was offered the role of Marshal Dillon, but he is certainly the one who recommended the quiet, six-foot-seven James Arness, brother of Peter Graves. Arness proved to be the perfect choice. Wow, what a man!
Other actors rounded out the cast. Remember them?
Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) ran the Longbranch Saloon where Sam (Glenn Strange) was the bartender; Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver) and Festus Hagen (Ken Curtis) were the deputies. Does anybody remember who played Doc?
The romance between Matt and Miss Kitty was clearly evident, but they didn’t so much as hold hands (hey, this was the Fifties). And the likely goings on upstairs in the Longbranch weren’t even mentioned. All in all, Gunsmoke was a sanitized version of what the real West must have been like. But who’s complaining? It was so much fun. And so romantic.
Do you have a favorite Gunsmoke episode? What was your favorite TV Western series? I’d love to hear.