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I remember watching Gunsmoke in the late 1950's. In black and white or in color it was consistently good, in large part, due to its talented cast. Originally John Wayne was offered the part but felt TV was not his cup of tea. He recommended a tall, good looking James Arness to play Matt Dillon and the rest is history.For the first 9 years, Dennis Weaver played Matt's devoted friend and deputy. Amanda Blake was perfect in the role of Miss Kitty, who ran the local Dodge City saloon. Milburn Stone, a long time screen actor, was given the part of Doc Adams, an outspoken man with a heart of gold. Then there was Ken Curtis who played Festus Hagen, a lovable deputy who was an equal replacement for Dennis Weaver. For 20 years, Gunsmoke graced the television line up at CBS. It was a different western in that its scripts were often filled with emotional stories that developed its characters. It employed many of our finest actors in guest roles. Realistic filming in Thousand Oaks, Ca. and in southwest Utah added to its appeal. It still runs today on Nick at Night and continues to captivate its audience. It is just plain good!!!
Having Tivo (a system that records programs automatically) has
Gunsmoke to me. I was a young boy when it began in the 1950's. I loved
the early shows. The 1962 shows are being aired on TV Land right now and
have about a dozen recorded for future viewing. I wanted to make an
observation about James Arness's character, Matt Dillon. He was my hero
growing up and watching the show. After seeing the shows again, 40 years
later, I know why. Matt was justice. He meted out retribution to those
were evil. Here he was, standing 6 feet seven inches with a voice like
Watching Matt save the day in episode after episode made me realize how great it would to have a Matt around today: someone who would stand up to the bully, step in a wield his gun at the villains taking advantage of anyone in sight. I guess we all had heroes, but who could ever match James Arness. He was fair, gentle, understanding, but had the strength and skill to ward off any foe.
I miss Matt Dillon. We won't see his like again. Even Clint Eastwood, with his Dirty Harry justice, did not have the depth of Matt with his combination of gunplay and compassion.
For the 20 years that it ran on CBS,"Gunsmoke" was the essential
Western to watch. Not only it was about a Marshal who retain law and
order in Dodge City in the 1800's,but set against the breathtaking
backdrop of the Kansas frontier. The stories kept its viewers on edge
no matter what its characters were going through as Matt Dillon(played
by James Arness) kept the peace alongside his deputies Chester
Goode(Dennis Weaver from 1955-1964 for 290 episodes),Quint Aspen(Burt
Reynolds from 1962-1965 for 50 episodes),Festus Hagen(Ken Curtis from
1964-1975 for 304 episodes),Thad Greene(Roger Ewing from 1965-1967 for
51 episodes)and Newly O'Brian(played by Buck Taylor from 1967-1975 for
174 episodes). It also had Matt Dillon's love interest Miss
Kitty(Amanda Blake from 1955-1974 for 568 episodes)and the resourceful
medical physician Doc Adams(Milburn Stone),and Sam (Glenn Strange from
1961-1975 for 238 episodes),and Miss Hannah(Fran Ryan from 1974-1975
for 26 episodes. Amanda Blake left the series at the end of the show's
19th season and was replaced by Fran Ryan in the final season). Only
actors James Arness and Milburn Stone remained with the series as the
only cast members that stayed throughout it's 20-year run.
Out of the 635 episodes that "Gunsmoke" produced,the series premiered on September 10,1955 with the episode "Matt Gets It". From September 10, 1955 until June 17, 1961 there were 233 half-hour black and white episodes. On September 30,1961 the show expanded to a hour long format that produced 176 episodes in black and white until May 7,1966. Then on September 17,1966 the show evolved from 11 seasons in black and white to color for 266 episodes until the final episode of the series on March 31,1975. During the first few seasons of "Gunsmoke" the show was in the top ten of the Nielsens becoming a huge Saturday night prime time favorite between 1955-1961 where the show became a phenomenon. By 1967, in it's 13th season, CBS made the decision to move the series from Saturday nights to Monday nights where it was back at the top of the ratings,due to a new audience and a earlier time slot. Between Seasons 13 thru 20 saw "Gunsmoke" surging back into the Top Ten of the Nielsens becoming one of the top five shows on television between 1967-1975.
The astounding success of "Gunsmoke" spawned seven Prime-Time Emmy nominations during it's run winning four Prime-Time Emmys in 1958(Best Dramatic Series);1959(Best Supporting Actor-Dennis Weaver);1968(Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role-Milburn Stone);1970(Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing). "Gunsmoke" was nominated for four Golden Globes with actress Amanda Blake for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series three times in 1970,1971 and 1972. Golden Globe nominated also when to Milburn Stone for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series in 1972. Golden Globe nominations also went to Ken Curtis and James Arness as well. When "Gunsmoke" ended it's run in 1975 it marked the end of the television Western...an astounding feat that when it was on the air during the early-1970's it surpass it's rival "Bonanza" which was already off the air two years earlier. When it was abruptly canceled on March 31,1975(with the final episode of the series "The Sharecroppers") the cast had no warning and learned their fate from media outlets. On September 8, 1975 the two shows that replaced the long-running "Gunsmoke" were two spinoffs of CBS' "Mary Tyler Moore Show" which were "Rhoda",and "Phyllis" that were placed on it's prime- time Monday night schedule. James Arness reprised the role of Marshal Dillon for six made for television movies based on "Gunsmoke" that aired on CBS between 1987 and 1994 featuring the original cast that includes Ken Curtis, Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor.
Unfortunately, I am a real 'greenhorn' when it comes to this show, being such a latecomer and all (endless thanks & kudos to 'The Western Channel') - but I know a quality series when I see one. I can't take my eyes off this thing once an episode gets going, and the characters, storylines and acting are all in a class of their own. All I can say is God Bless Marshall Dillon, Festus, Miss Kitty, Chester, Quint, Sam, Doc and all the rest of the characters and the actors who played them. There will never be another show that can even spit-shine the dust from Gunsmoke's boots.
The best of the series is the first five years when John Meston did most of
the writing. He had a real feel of, what I perceive to be, the Old West to
be really like. He did not go in for all of the frivolousness of later
episodes. He did not rely on loud talking and grandiose brashness by the
People in the earlier episodes gave the impression that they were ordinary, hard working people who barely eked a living out of a hard land. They did what they had to do to get by, out on the lonely Kansas plains. When they met disaster, it was "implied" on screen and the viewer could use his imagination as to what happened. Those shows did not have all of the "Hollywood" glitz that pervaded later episodes.
The original title of "Kitty's Love Affair" was "End of the Run." The story depicted a gunfighter who fell in love with Kitty and hoped that, by buying a ranch and settling down, he could encourage her to marry him. The original ending had the gunfighter (Richard Kiley) hanged. Unfortunately, John Mantley, the producer, decided that, yet again, Matt would save the day. Before Mr. Kiley was cast in the role of Will Stambridge, the writers (S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler) were told there could be no kissing scenes between the gunfighter and Miss Kitty because "Gunsmoke fans would never allow it." After Richard accepted the role, the script was altered to allow Will to kiss Kitty four times! This was the highest rated episode in the twenty year history of Gunsmoke.
That Gunsmoke is the greatest TV western of all time is hard to dispute. it may be the great TV show of all time. Think of what your favorite show might have been like after 20 years on the air and then compare it to Gunsmoke, which was probably as good as anything on TV for it's entire twenty year run. Not too many shows were on so long that their runs can be divided into eras, but Gunsmoke has three of them. The first is the half hour black and white era, (1955-61). This is the most praised era of the show and the era of it's greatest popularity, (it was the #1 show on TV the last four of those years). Critics praise the "tight scripting" of those days and James Arness has said he prefers John Meston's "little morality plays" to the later hour episodes, which some critics have called "bloated". I like the half hours because they show the program in it's formative years, when the cast was young, (and the right age for their characters). I also like you can get four of them to a cassette, rather than two. But these shows are basically about incidents, rather than stories. They lack character and story development. The second era is the hour long black and white era. This is my favorite, firstly because it's the earliest one I remember from the times I watched it with my father and secondly because it's the best. With the extra hour to work with and a new group of writers to do the work,. the series matured. The supporting cast became stars, (nearly every famous episode featuring Chester, Festus, Doc or Kitty comes from this period). It also is the era when the second lead was introduced. the first and best was Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper, who's entire run is in this era. The writers also increased the scope of the show by focusing on "guest characters" with the regulars as supporting players. Unfortunately, the general public didn't share my enthusiasm for this era, (or they found something better to do on Saturday nights). Gunsmoke fell from #1 to #36, (in an era where there were only three networks), and actually got briefly canceled until William Paley saved it. But the old Saturday night spot was taken by Mannix so the show was moved to Tuesday, where it was expected to die a natural death among shows intended for younger viewers. In the greatest upset in TV ratings history, the show was discovered by a new generation and rebounded to #2, earning it another 8 years on the air, by which time the western craze it had started was long over and all it's rivals, even Bonanza, were long off the air.
By this time, color had taken over. And it didn't do the show much good. Magazine reporters used to say: black and white for drama, color for excitement. Gunsmoke was about drama. Gunsmoke used to use an outdoor set for daytime Dodge City scenes. That disappeared in favor of an indoor set about 1960. In black an white the indoor set sufficed. In color it looked garish and stagy. Color had the same effect on the actors who were now too old for their roles. Real western marshals served for a few months at a time, (and, by the way, US Marshals were never town marshals). it became increasingly ridiculous to see Matt Dillon still gunning down the young whippersnappers after a decade or more. Miss Kitty went from a purdy young thing to a middle aged painted lady. Doc became increasingly enfeebled as Milburn Stone's health declined. Somehow the color film brought out all the wrinkles more than black and white. There where compensations. Each season began with a movie-caliber two parter shot on location in some national park. the overall script quality remained high as the cadre of writers continued to expand. They even got an outdoor set to use again in the later years, although it didn't look much like the Dodge City we had come to know.
The TV movies? The first one was terrible. The second one was quite good. the third one stunk and I didn't bother with them after that.
When you're talking TV westerns there are only two really that are at
the top, interchangeably as it were. One is CBS's Gunsmoke and the
other is NBC's Bonanza. Then you discuss anything else.
It's interesting to speculate how John Wayne's career might have taken a different turn had he accepted the offer to star in a weekly half hour television show about the Marshal of Dodge City. But of course he didn't do it, but instead pushed hard for an even taller marshal for the Kansas frontier town. James Arness had co-starred with the Duke in Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and Hondo. He certainly brought a Duke like presence to the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.
A lot of people forget that Gunsmoke was a radio series for several years before it came to television. It ran parallel on radio in the declining years of radio drama and the voice of Matt Dillon on the radio was William Conrad. Certainly a capable enough actor, Conrad's squat appearance just didn't match the description on radio of Dillon. Why do you think John Wayne was the first choice?
Besides the regulars on every week which included Dennis Weaver as the stiff legged somewhat mentally challenged Deputy Chester Goode, Milburn Stone as testy and cantankerous Doctor Galen Adams, and Amanda Blake as Matt's significant other, Kitty Russell of the Longbranch saloon, the writers were smart enough to make sure the producers kept a recurring cast of regulars as the townspeople. Roy Roberts the banker, Eddy Waller as the livery stable owner, Glenn Strange as the bartender in the Longbranch, and for a while Burt Reynolds as a blacksmith, popped up in several episodes a year, even just with a line or two. It kept a great sense of continuity and the whole community of Dodge City became like familiar friends.
Poor Dennis Weaver who related the stiff leg was his idea to establish individuality of his character and that he had to study yoga in order to walk with it and mount a horse said that he would have done something different if he knew how difficult it was going to be. He read for the Matt Dillon part and took the role of Chester because he needed the work. But after several seasons, he naturally did not want to spend his career typecast as a half wit. He quit and the rustic Festus Hagen came on as the Deputy. Festus was uneducated, but was by no means stupid. His arguments with the cantankerous Doc Adams were classic. Festus was played with real flair by Ken Curtis.
If Gunsmoke is remembered for something other than a really great western series, maybe the best we ever had on television, it's the show that was saved by White House intervention. Along about 1965 because of declining ratings CBS was considering giving it the axe. But in an interview Lady Bird Johnson happened to mention that Gunsmoke was her favorite television show. That offhand comment revived interest in the series and CBS kept Gunsmoke on for another decade.
Gunsmoke was an adult western, the plot situations were adult, but it's characters were both real and morally upright. Matt Dillon was no kid's cowboy hero like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but he was honest and decent and a fine role model who was incorruptible. And he and Kitty Russell had an adult romance going in the same manner as Perry Mason and Della Street. It was unspoken that sex as well as liquor was to be had at the Longbranch, but Miss Kitty had eyes only for the Marshal.
As did America for twenty satisfying years.
This episode, "The Deadly Innocent", filmed in 1973-75, guest starring Russell Wiggins as Billy, was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame for the sensitive portrayal of mental retardation. It portrayed Marshall Dillon and Festus as helping a mentally handicapped man find a productive place in society in the Old West.
This one lasted 20 years, was in the top 10 '50s, '60s, and '70s(as late as
'72...) You name the western character actor-Dub Taylor, Gerald McRaney,
Richard Kiley, Forrest Tucker, etc. chances are, they turned up in here. I
always preferred Ken Curtis to Dennis Weaver myself, but Chester was okay
This has to be the #1 Western of all time, Arness, Blake, Stone and company made this a classic. By all means, if its carried somewhere, see it. It's one of the best.
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