Get outta Dodge — Toasting ‘Gunsmoke,’ TV’s most critically acclaimed Western

Jeremy Roberts
Nov 28, 2016 · 8 min read
The January 2, 1960, issue of TV Guide unleashes the original “Gunsmoke” cast unguarded backstage. Left to right are James Arness [Marshal Matt Dillon], Amanda Blake [Miss Kitty Russell], Dennis Weaver [trusty sidekick Chester Goode], and Milburn Stone [Doc Adams]. Image Credit: CBS Interactive

Gunsmoke, TV’s longest running prime time, live action dramatic series for decades until tying with Law and Order, starred James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Dillon’s dependable, high-strung, drawling sidekick Chester Goode, Milburn Stone as the crotchety but lovable Galen “Doc” Adams, and Amanda Blake as the brassy Miss Kitty Russell, proprietor of the Long Branch saloon and Dillon’s ravishing red-haired enigmatic flame.

The series premiered September 10, 1955 on CBS in a special 30-minute episode introduced by John Wayne, who was preparing to depart for Monument Valley to begin filming John Ford’s iconic Western The Searchers. The Duke’s blessing basically ensured instant credibility for Gunsmoke, which was initially compared unfavorably with the radio version starring William Conrad of later Cannon fame.

Crackling writing largely from the hand of John Meston, realistic gunfights and bare knuckle brawls, and chemistry among the talented cast sealed the classic western’s status as the No. 1 show for four straight years [1957–1961].

Gunsmoke remained in Nielsen’s Top 10 ratings for an additional nine seasons and amazingly still trampled the competition as late as 1974 [No. 15], enduring various time slot alterations. Still consistently in the Top 30, it was the only Western on TV when it was cancelled the following year. Inexplicably, Arness and the crew learned this fate while reading Daily Variety.

Dillon was a man of few words whose towering six feet, seven inch frame, commanding authority, and sense of duty made villains shudder in their boots before they were unceremoniously laid to rest in an unmarked grave on Boot Hill. Countless trigger happy braggarts and outright killers refused to heed Dillon’s choice epithet: “Get outta Dodge!” The marshal didn’t necessarily have the fastest draw, but his aim was always steadfastly accurate.

Arness possessed many of these admirable characteristics in real life. He was the first member of his platoon to exit the landing barge at the Battle of Anzio in 1944. His commander wisely felt the 20-year-old soldier could gauge how deep the water was due to his considerable height.

Wounded by German machine gun fire in his knee and lower leg, Arness gave a chilling account of the experience in his 2001 memoir that has been lauded by World War II history buffs. In later color seasons of Gunsmoke the actor walked with a noticeable limp.

A personally autographed first edition of “James Arness: An Autobiography” published on Sept. 10, 2001. The beautiful watercolor painting depicts Arness’s most well known character, Marshal Matt Dillon from “Gunsmoke.” Image Credit: McFarland & Company / Courtesy of Jeremy Roberts

Rigorously private, TV Guide dubbed the loner “The Greta Garbo of Dodge City” in a fascinating December 1966 profile reporting that Arness demanded final approval of any article dealing with him personally. While the reporter was interviewing Stone, Arness got wind of the situation and voiced his concerns to a Gunsmoke producer who called Stone. Ol’ Doc became so upset that the interview was halted. Nevertheless, Arness eventually grew to appreciate his fans and began interacting with them on his official website after encouragement from wife Janet Arness in the late 1990s.

One quality that was never fully explored in front of Gunsmoke’s cameras was Arness’s humor. He would continually ruin scenes by causing his fellow cast members to burst into extended fits of laughter. In later years Arness became an experienced pilot, and he was known to buzz the set during location work.

Fans might be surprised to learn that the Norwegian drifted very far away from the Western landscape, surfing almost daily in the beautiful waters near Baja, California. Skin diving, skiing, and racing a 58 foot catamaran appropriately named “Sea Smoke” — built to be the fastest catamaran in the world — were additional passions.

In a 2005 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Arness stated his favorite episodes included “Chato,” “Snow Train” [both 1970], and “The River” [1972], singling “Chato” out as probably his all-time favorite. In this well-acted, suspenseful episode, Dillon tracks a Native American [Ricardo Montalban] who killed one of his friends into the rugged mountains of New Mexico.

All of these color episodes can be seen weekdays on the TV Land network. The network’s package features every episode from the show’s final nine seasons [1966–1975]. Although there are too many irritating commercials, TV Land is the only major cable channel featuring these color seasons.

Weaver, an alumnus of the prestigious Actors Studio in New York who placed sixth in the 1948 Olympic Games decathlon tryouts — doubly ironic considering his authentic rendering of a limping comic relief — was the first cast member to earn an Emmy in 1959, followed nine years later by Stone. The former ultimately left the series in 1964 for more challenging (read starring) roles and was replaced by former Sons of the Pioneers lead singer and frequent John Ford Stock Company member Ken Curtis, who gamely constructed the scruffy, illiterate, and tough as nails hillbilly Festus Haggen.

Ken Curtis [Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen] pretty much idolizes James Arness [Marshal Matt Dillon] in a cool photo representative of their onscreen relationship in prime time television’s longest-running drama “Gunsmoke,” circa 1967. Image Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Accordingly, modern viewers likely remember Festus the most, since TV Land has kept the majority of his episodes in constant rotation since the late ’90s. Curtis carried a significant number of story lines after Arness willingly asked to curtail his shooting schedule. “Island in the Desert,” a two-part episode broadcast during the show’s final season costarring the scene-stealing Strother Martin, may be Curtis’s crowning glory as Festus.

Dillon was prime time television’s longest running character until oddball Seattle-based psychiatrist Frasier Crane tied this remarkable achievement in 2004. However, it should be noted that Kelsey Grammer portrayed his character on two disparate series, Cheers and Frasier, and he only had a supporting role on the former. Arness was always the star of Gunsmoke. Thirty-four years after Gunsmoke went off the air, The Simpsons surpassed it as television’s longest-running prime time, scripted television series. In fall 2019 Law & Order: SVU made headlines when it broke Gunsmoke’s reign as TV’s longest-running drama series. Gunsmoke produced an astounding 635 episodes, and 402 of those were 60 minutes in length.

The early black and white half hour episodes of Gunsmoke [1955–1961] are airing, albeit in edited form for commercial breaks, on the INSP network. When the show morphed into an hour, it remained in black and white for another five years. Those episodes are exhumed on MeTV as well as INSP. All Gunsmoke seasons except the final one are officially available on painstakingly remastered DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. Most were split into half seasons of approximately 15 episodes, prolonging the reissue campaign and sadly ensuring that many of the western’s original fans had already succumbed to advanced age.

Weaver pinpointed the sagebrush saga’s enduring legacy in a 2002 video interview with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation. “Gunsmoke was a ground breaker,” confirmed Weaver. “It was the first so-called adult western. There were no songs, guitar playing, or kissing the horse. It was about real people in real situations with real problems and how those problems were resolved. Sometimes they weren’t resolved. That made Gunsmoke very gritty, believable, and fresh. People ask me, ‘Why do you think Gunsmoke was so successful?’ Its writing. But you’ve also gotta start with characters that relate to each other in a human way and are extremely believable. You must have actors that can execute what’s in the script in a creative way.”

******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!*********************

Exclusive Interview: Determined Arkansan Beth Brickell had an intimate meeting with Princess Grace Kelly at the Palace of Monaco to figure out whether it was feasible for her to pursue her dream of acting. How did she manage such an unheard-of feat? By going the tried and true route and writing a letter. After years of toiling at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York City, she found herself cast in a breakout smash television series in 1967 as the dependable wife of Florida Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe [Dennis Weaver] on the half hour family adventure series Gentle Ben. Brickell dropped by Gunsmoke — 1973’s “The Widow and the Rogue” with grumbling, tough as leather Deputy Festus Haggen — Bonanza, Emergency!, Hawaii Five-O, Fantasy Island, and occasionally enlivened a feature film such as Kirk Douglas’s underappreciated, decidedly cynical Western Posse.The Unconventionally Persistent Journey of ‘Gentle Ben’ Heroine Beth Brickell” stands as her most comprehensive, intimate interview in years.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Jack Kelly had an undeniable knack for making the ladies swoon. Possessing a svelte figure, the charming cowboy became a household name when he costarred with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. Biographer Linda Alexander took it upon herself to expose the actor’s body of work to a new generation, and an interview seemed like the perfect place to start. In “More Than Bret Maverick’s Brother: Remembering Jack Kelly, a Proud Father, Nice Guy and Darn Fine Actor”], Alexander reveals how Garner’s contract negotiations with the network affected his costar, the crucial choice that Kelly had to make after Maverick evaporated, why the actor stuck firmly to his self-imposed rule that he wouldn’t play a character being cheated on by a woman, whether he would have returned to the silver screen, and his vast legacy.

Leaning against a beat-up Wild West stagecoach, James Arness sports his trademark salmon-colored shirt, tan vest, and ten-gallon, custom-made Stetson as Marshal Matt Dillon on the CBS set of “Gunsmoke” in Studio City, Calif., 1970. Image Credit: MPTV Images
Ken Curtis draws his six-gun in character as the non-educated but extremely savvy U.S. Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen on the long-running CBS Western series “Gunsmoke” in 1967. Note the conspicuous rubber tire tracks which weren’t around in the 1870s! Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
Actress Amanda Blake is captured in glorious color as Long Branch saloon owner Kitty Russell aka Marshal Matt Dillon’s steady girlfriend in a backstage still from “Gunsmoke,” CBS Studio Center, Radford Avenue, Los Angeles, circa 1961. Image Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Actor Dennis Weaver stands with arms akimbo and laughs uproariously in long underwear and a cowboy hat as unofficial Dodge City deputy Chester Goode while filming one of his all-time favorite ‘Gunsmoke’ episodes, “Chesterland,” on June 8, 1961. Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
Two good buddies in real life, Dennis Weaver and James Arness, in character as unofficial Dodge City deputy Chester Goode and stoic Marshal Matt Dillon for the July 20, 1963 cover of “TV Guide.” Weaver departed “Gunsmoke” for greener pastures just one year later. Image Credit: TV Guide / CBS Interactive
James Arness [Marshal Matt Dillon], Milburn Stone [Doc Adams], Amanda Blake [Miss Kitty], Ken Curtis [Festus], and a seated Burt Reynolds [Quint Asper] of “Gunsmoke” face an uncertain future in the aftermath of Dennis Weaver’s [Chester Goode] departure, fall 1964. Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
Emmy-winning character actor Milburn Stone appears in a rare color still during his 20-year tenure as ‘Gunsmoke’s’ resident cantankerous physician Galen “Doc” Adams, circa 1968. Only Stone and Dennis Weaver received Emmy nods for their definitive portrayals of Dodge City residents. Image Credit: Lucy Media / FanPix
James Arness [U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon] and Ken Curtis [Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen] are photographed on July 7, 1971, while filming the 17th season of the hit CBS Western “Gunsmoke.” Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
James Arness [Marshal Matt Dillon] and Amanda Blake [Miss Kitty Russell], one of classic television’s most beloved couples who never even shared a kiss, pose alongside a vintage stagecoach on the “Gunsmoke” set in Studio City, California, 1970. Image Credit: MPTV Images
Milburn Stone [Galen “Doc” Adams], Glenn Strange [bartender Sam Noonan], Amanda Blake [saloon owner Miss Kitty Russell], James Arness [Marshal Matt Dillon], Ken Curtis [Deputy Festus Haggen], and Buck Taylor [gunsmith Newly O’Brien] depict the final cast lineup of “Gunsmoke,” 1970. Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive
Best known as Dodge City gunsmith-reserve deputy Newly O’Brien in 174 episodes of the classic CBS television Western “Gunsmoke,” Buck Taylor poses on Jan. 9, 2015, inside DK Studios, Las Vegas, Nevada. The cowboy gentleman and Burt Reynolds are the only two surviving “Gunsmoke” cast members. Image Credit: Photography by Jeff Farrell / Outpost Creative

© Jeremy Roberts, 2016. All rights reserved. To echo the sentiments of my talented colleague Bonnie Barton — “I know you are busy and have lots of ways you could be spending your time. Using it to read my work means the world and is truly appreciated.” Feel free to recommend, share, or follow me here on Medium. For new articles sent weekly to your inbox, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way.

Jeremy Roberts

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ something fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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