Four decades later “Gunsmoke” is gone but not forgotten

September 10, 1955

On this day “Gunsmoke’s” Marshal Matt Dillon rode into America’s living rooms.  He didn’t leave for another 20 years.

The popular CBS radio serial, was reinvented for the small screen with a telegenic new cast and parked in perhaps the weekend’s most coveted time slot.  The ground breaking Western drama dominated TV’s 10 p.m. Eastern for more than a decade.  In all, the Dodge City dynasty survived for 635 episodes, still the longest live action drama in history.

It missed by a whisker being the industry’s first Western for adults.   “The Life and Legend of  Wyatt Earp,” staring Hugh Brian (right) had premiered on ABC just four days earlier.  The network’s one-two punch followed two weeks later, with “Cheyenne.”  It was the first hour-long cowboy drama with Clint Walker (below) as Sheriff Bodie.

The secret to “Gunsmoke’s” longevity, in addition to James Arness as the iconic Dillon was the strong cast of reoccurring characters.   The principles included sidekick, Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode; Amanda Blake, the sheriff’s sort of love interest and Milburn Stone as  the crusty “Doc” Adams.  Although some of the supporting players changed over the years, it remained an advantage its early competitors lacked.  

While the Wyatt Earp series had a large roster of nearly 30, their roles were limited by the Earp saga’s changing locales from cow towns in Kansas to Tombstone. “Cheyenne” had no reoccurring roles other than Bodie.

 The Dillon character got shined up a bit for TV.  The radio version featuring the legendary voice of William Conrad, seemed tougher and more isolated. Weaver’s Chester Goode, (left)  based on radio’s Chester Proudfoot, developed his trademark gimp in his git-along as a device to establish his “second banana”  status and downplay the handsome actor’s leading man potential.

Blake’s Miss Kitty Russell, underwent a much less subtle shift from “saloon girl,” to  human resources officer for the fabled the Long Branch, other duties unspecified.   She eventually was portrayed as its sole proprietor.  Stone,  through the years gently  morphed from a grouchy, semi-pickled town sawbones into Dodge City’s most sympathetic elder statesman. (Right, Kitty and “Doc”)

A number of other reoccupying characters joined the cast including Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, (right) Burt Reynolds at Quint Asper, Roger Ewing as Thad Greenwood and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brian.  Most of the new crop of deputies had previously appeared in guest spots.

The 30-minute drama was TV’s top rated show from 1957 to 1961, eventually slipping into the pack when it was expanded to an hour.  

Rumors of the show’s demise in 1967 sent diehard fans into a frenzy.  Faced with viewer pressure, CBS reportedly sacrificed Gilligan’s Island instead.

 In a classic example of a network behaving badly, the show’s cast was taken unawares when it was cancelled in 1975, according to Arness.  As a result, he said, there was no wrap-up episode.  

Some of the actors reassembled for a television movie entitled “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge” including Arness, Blake and Taylor.   It turned out to be a huge ratings hit, spawning four more TV dramas.

Cast members of “Return to Dodge”

The 1993 40th anniversary issue of “TV Guide” anointed “Gunsmoke” as “TV’s  all-time best western”.  In 1998, the magazine’s poll of 50,000 viewers also ranked the show as the  best-ever CBS series and Arness as 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  the release of “How the West Was Won.”  He died in 2011 in Los Angeles at age 88.

Amanda Blake spent the 14 years following “Gunsmoke”as an animal advocate and was a founding member of  the Arizona Animal Welfare League. (Left)  Animal causes was not new for Blake, however.  She was known to bring her pet lion, “Kemo” to the set on a number of occasions.

 She died in 1989 in Phoenix of complications from oral cancer. A controversial death certificate also stated that she suffered from AIDS.   Close friends dispute the idea the star was a drug user or promiscuous and believe she contracted  the disease from a former husband.

Milburn 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.” (Right)  A life long Democrat and avid environmentalist, he served three years as president of the Screen Actors Guild and founded a program to feed 150,000 of the poorest in Los Angeles. 

Ken Curtis, who joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1867, died in Fresno, California in 1991.   The son of a Colorado lawman raised over his father’s jail, started out as a big band singer. He  appeared for a number of years with the well-known group,” Sons of the Pioneers” before turning to acting.  

Arness and Stone share the record for appearances in a single series.  They both remained “Gunsmoke” for its entire run.  Arness appeared in all 635 episodes.  Stone missed only  seven, his absence created when he suffered a heart attack.  The pair also still hold the title for character longevity, matched only by Kelsey Grammer’s Fraiser Crain. (Right)  Grammer’s character stretched over two series, “Cheers” and “Frasier.”  

Arenas (right) received more awards for his service from the military than from Hollywood, receiving a Bronze Star for valor in East Africa and a Purple Heart.  Nominated for a best-actor Emmy three times, he never won.  The show collected  a bevy of technical Emmies through the years but Milburn Stone and Dennis Weaver were the only cast members ever to win for acting.

More than four decades since it cancellation, “Gunsmoke”  continues to live on in the hearts of its  loyal fans and may live forever in syndication.  It can still be found in reruns at multiple places up and down the dial.

Boot Hill Museum, Fifth and Front Street, Dodge City, Kansas, features memorabilia from television’s “Gusmoke” and various Hollywood incarnations beginning with the 1939 movie, “Dodge City” starring Errol Flynn, Olivia De Haviland and Ann Sheridan.  In addition it contains more than 60,000 items pertaining to Dodge City’s early history, some from the collection of the town’s original residents.  Many were part of the private collection of Chalkey Beeson, owner of the legendary Long Branch Saloon.  

Outdoor exhibits include a number of authentic buildings of the era, relocated from other Kansas locations.  A blacksmith shop thought to be original to Dodge City is joined by the  Fort Dodge jail, which local Jaycees “stole” with permission in 1953,  Sitca’s Santa Fe train depot and locomotive and a school house from Superior.   Various galleries include exhibits on Native Americans, American bison, cowboys and cattle drives, farming and homesteading and the Victorian era. 

Admission is $12 for adults, $11 for senior, $9 for children 5 to 10 and family tickets $42.  Seasonal discounts apply from September through April  The museum is from  Memorial Day to Labor Day.  Winter hours are 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday.  Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  For ticket prices for individual summer activities and more information on the museum, go to, e-mail or call  (620) 227-8188  

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.