A strange phenomenon was cast upon me six or seven years ago. I became ill with what may have been a flu strain, and when the sickness broke, I cared a lot less about sports and had a sudden desire to watch classic TV Westerns.
I had been watching Western films for a handful of years at that point, but never showed any interest in television Westerns. All of the sudden, I couldn’t get enough of them. As I do with my other interests, I began reading about the topic online. Several shows interested me to the point where I sought out episodes both online and on cable, including Bonanza, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wagon Train, and The The Rifleman.
But my research made it clear that Gunsmoke, which I was aware of, but not interested in as a child, was widely considered to be the king of TV Westerns. So I began spending more time with that show than the others. After jumping around a bit, I started watching the episodes in order, beginning with the first season. I initially just wanted to get through the first six seasons, which featured half-hour long episodes in Black & White. My friend Corlyss, an experienced Westerns viewer, told me those were the best ones. But when I got to the end of those, I decided to keep going and watched all of the hour-long Black & White episodes. Of course, there was no way I was stopping after working my way through those seasons when I was so far into it. I finished the mother of all binge-watching projects with the seasons that were filmed in Color. It took me roughly eight months to watch all 635 Gunsmoke episodes. By the time I was finished, I had a deep affection for the show and its characters.
The opening episode of the first season, which aired in September of 1955, began with an introduction by the greatest of all Western stars, John Wayne. He had been offered the part of Marshall Dillon and turned it down, but recommended his friend James Arness for the role. The Duke called Gunsmoke an “adult Western” during his intro. The show dealt with a lot of serious topics and usually had a moral message, especially during the earlier Black & White seasons. Topics such as spousal abuse and hostility to immigrants were addressed head-on, with Marshall Dillon often in the roll of protecting the underdog or abused.
The cast for the first seven to eight seasons featured four main characters: Matt Dillon, the U.S. Marshall of Dodge City, played by Arness; Miss Kitty, the hostess, then owner of the town’s most popular saloon, played by Amanda Blake; Doc Adams, the town doctor, played by Milburne Stone; and Chester Goode, the Marshall’s assistant, who was portrayed by Dennis Weaver.
If you have watched the first few seasons of the American version of The Office, you should be very familiar with the kind of relationship Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty had. Think Jim and Pam. But while that couple’s frustrating cat-and-mouse game lasted for about three seasons, Matt and Kitty kept viewers in a state of agony over their failure to take the next step for a full 19 years. The show lasted 20, but Amanda Blake didn’t stick around for the final season.
I referred to Chester as Matt’s assistant because he was never officially made a deputy. During the first few seasons, he was somewhat of a buffoon who couldn’t be trusted to reliably watch over a prisoner and spent much of his time making coffee and complaining about being hungry. Eventually, he started to prove himself as a worthy sidekick to the Marshall, for instance, by holding off two villains and protecting the wounded Doc until Matt’s arrival in one episode.
Around the seventh or eight season, Dennis Weaver got tired of being a sidekick and began exploring other acting avenues. Chester would appear for several episodes, then disappear for the next few. It went on like that for a season or two, then the show’s producers began bringing in new sidekicks for the Marshall.
First up was a man who went on to major stardom before long; Burt Reynolds. I never knew he made a name for himself on Gunsmoke until I got into binge-watching the show. He played Quint Asper, who caught a lot of flack from ignorant townsfolk and bad-guys passing through over being half-Indian. But he became Dodge’s blacksmith and Matt’s back-up when he needed help and Chester wasn’t around. And like Matt, Quint was great with his fists.
But Burt must have also had multiple oars in the water, because he too was only appearing in roughly every-other episode. So Ken Kurtis, who guest-starred in several episodes, playing other characters in early seasons, was brought on as Festus Haggen, whose speech and behavior frequently didn’t make sense, but who was trustworthy and handy with a gun. He quickly became a favorite and within a season or so of the character’s introduction, Festus was clearly Matt’s main number two in Dodge City. He was made an actual Deputy U.S. Marshall and remained with the show until it went off the air in 1975. For a relatively brief period, Festus and Quint co-existed in Dodge and built up a nice rapport with each other. But we all know that Burt Reynolds left TV and moved on to the Big Screen.
The relationship between Festus and Doc became a comic sideshow over the years. They would drive each other crazy, with Doc often teasing Festus or Festus getting Doc to blow his stack. But when one was in trouble or hurt, the other always showed how he really felt.
After Burt Reynolds left the show, the producers apparently decided they needed another good-looking actor to draw female viewers. So they brought in Roger Ewing to play Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood, known better as Thad. He was tall, blonde and attractive. But there was a problem with Roger Ewing. He wasn’t much of an actor. The only thing he seemed to excel at was smiling. He had a great smile and would flash it frequently. But that smile wasn’t enough for Thad to stick around more than a couple seasons.
Ewing’s replacement was Buck Taylor, who played gunsmith and part-time deputy, Newly O’Brien. He worked out better and managed to stick around until the show went off the air.
Gunsmoke’s introduction each week became legendary in its own right. For years, viewers would tune in and see Marshall Dillon face off against a gunman on a Dodge City street while a narrator would give the show’s title and name of it’s lead star, James Arness. It was altered, at first slightly, then a bit more over the years. But the early to mid seasons featured that iconic gun draw.
Following the intro, many of the episodes then moved on to Marshall Dillon wondering around Boot Hill, Dodge’s cemetery for bad guys and no-named drifters. As you saw him walking among the tombstones, you would hear his voice philosophizing about some serious subject that would be addressed in the episode that was then beginning.
The closing theme music, played while the cast and crew were scrolled on screen, is also fantastic.
Numerous well-known actors made appearances on Gunsmoke; many before they achieved major stardom, but not all. Bette Davis guest starred as a villain in a 1966 episode.
William Shatner, Leonard Nemoy and DeForest Kelley all appeared in multiple episodes, including one each for Shatner and Nemoy that were filmed after they had signed on for their Star Trek roles.
Susan Olsen, better known as Cindy Brady, made a pre-Brady Bunch appearance. Jody Foster and Kurt Russell also appeared as children.
Carol O’Connor, Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Charles Bronson were among the many other major stars who appeared on Gunsmoke. Here is a much longer list: https://www.metv.com/stories/these-60-famous-actors-all-appeared-on-gunsmoke
There were also a handful of character actors who appeared on the show repeatedly over the course of a number of seasons. John Anderson, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin and John Dehner come to mind. But my favorite was the great Jack Elam, who usually played a bad guy, but took on several lighter guest roles as well.
I continue to watch Gunsmoke at least somewhat regularly. It’s a habit not easily given up. Of course, that could all change the next time I get sick.