Trail Dust - September 10
On this day in 1955, Gunsmoke, television’s longest prime-time live action drama premiered on CBS.
After a successful nine-year run as a radio serial, an entirely new cast was selected featuring James Arness as Sheriff Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Dillion’s sidekick, Chester Goode; Amanda Blake as Dillon’s sort of, kind of love interest and Milburn Stone as the crusty town doctor, Galen “Doc” Adams.
At total of 635 episodes ran over 20 years, airing the first 12 seasons on Saturdays. 10 p.m. EST. Arness was the only character that appeared in every one. Stone was absent for seven after suffering a heart attack.
The show’s characters changed color from the radio to the television version. Weaver’s Chester Goode, based on radio’s Chester Proudfoot, developed his trademark gimp in his git-along, principally to cement the character’s role as a second banana and downplay Weaver’s leading man qualities.
Miss Kitty, whose profession in the radio show was subtly suggested to be prostitution, merely worked at the Long Branch Saloon to begin with and then became the saloon’s sole proprietor.
Stone also morphed the crusty, semi-pickled town sawbones into a more sympathetic elder statesman.
Over the years, a number of reoccurring characters joined the cast including Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Burt Reynolds at Quint Asper, Roger Ewing as Thad Greenwood and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brian. Most of the new Dodge deputies had previously appeared in guest spots.
The 30-minute drama was TV's top rated show from 1957 to 1961 but slipped into the pack when it was expanded to an hour.
Rumors of the show’s demise in 1967 sent diehard fans into a frenzy to save it. Faced with viewer pressure, CBS reportedly sacrificed Gilligan’s Island instead.
According to Arness, the cast was taken unawares when the show was cancelled in 1975. As a result, he said, there was no wrap-up episode.
Some of the cast members reassembled for a television movie entitled “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge” including Arness, Blake and Taylor which was a huge ratings hit. It spawned four more TV dramas.
The 1993 40th anniversary issue of TV Guide anointed Gunsmoke as “the best TV western." In 1998, the magazine’s poll of 50,000 TV viewers ranked the show as CBS’s best-ever western and Arness the network’s best “gunslinger.”
Following the show’s marathon run, many of the main characters retired. Arness went on to appear in movies and became a European cult star after “How the West Was Won” was released. He died in 2011 in Los Angeles at age 88.
Amanda Blake died in 1989 in Phoenix of complications from oral cancer. Following Gunsmoke, she spent her time as an animal advocate. Her death certificate also stated that she suffered from AIDS, which insiders believe she contracted from her openly bisexual husband.
Melburn Stone died in LaJolla, California in 1980 from a heart attack and Weaver died in 2006 of cancer in Ridgeway, Colorado after a successful seven years on NBC’s “McCloud." He also served three years as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Ken Curtis, who joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1967, died in Fresno, California in 1991. Starting out as a big band singer, he later appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers and was actually the son of a Colorado lawman, raised above the jail in Las Alimas, Colorado.