Thursday, 10 September 2015

The 60th Anniversary of Gunsmoke

It was 60 years ago today that that the long-running television show Gunsmoke debuted on CBS-TV. Along with Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (both of which debuted that same season), it was responsible for sparking the enormous cycle towards Westerns that dominated American broadcast television in the late Fifties. It would become the longest running, primetime, regularly scheduled, commercial, broadcast network drama with continuing characters in the history of American television. Indeed, of shows with continuing characters it is only surpassed by the animated sitcom The Simpsons with 25 years so far.

Like many classic television shows, Gunsmoke originated as a radio show. And, as is often the case with radio shows and TV shows, its origins were somewhat complicated. William S. Paley, CBS's chairman and founder, was a huge fan of the radio show The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. He then approached then CBS Vice President, director of TV and radio, Harry Ackerman (who would later be Vice President in Charge of Production of Screen Gems), with the idea of doing a "hard boiled Western," essentially Philip Marlowe in the Old West. Mr. Ackerman brought in writers Mort Fine and David Friedkin to write an audition script. The end result, Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye was firmly in the hard boiled tradition and featured actor Rye Bradbury as Dillon. A lighter version of the script, done as a more traditional Western, was also recorded with Howard Culver of the radio Western Straight Arrow in the lead role. CBS preferred the version with Mr.  Culver as Dillon. Unfortunately, this forerunner of Gunsmoke would not make it to the air. Howard Culver's contract with Straight Arrow restricted him from doing any other Western show. The project was then shelved indefinitely.

This brings us to Norman Macdonnell and John Meston, who adapted an Ernest Haycox Western short story as "Pagosa", an episode of the radio show Romance that aired on August 8 1949. "Pagosa" featured the voice of William Conrad as Jeff Spain, the prototype for Marshall Matt Dillon. Like Gunsmoke after it, it was very much an adult Western. The two later wrote another adult oriented Western as an episode of the radio show Escape, "Wild Jack Rhett," which aired on the show on December 17 1950, also based on an Ernest Haycox story.  Messrs. Macdonnell and Meston came up with the idea of a radio show that would be an adult Western, focusing more on characters than on gunfights or derring do called Jeff Spain (after the lead character on "Pagosa").  They soon learned, however, that CBS had already produced two audition scripts of "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye," scripts that were remarkably similar to their concept.

Fortunately, for Messrs. Macdonnell and Meston, the sudden cancellation of the show Operation Underground left an empty slot on the CBS Radio schedule. Their new adult Western series was given the go ahead. Before it reached its first broadcast, however, it would undergo some changes. Harry Ackerman did not particularly care for the name "Jeff Spain" and renamed the character "Matt Dillon." As to the show itself, it became known as Gunsmoke. William Conrad, who had played Jeff Spain in "Pagosa," was cast as Marshall Matt Dillon. Howard McNear (best known as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show) was cast as Doc Adams (named for cartoonist Charles Addams, as the character was originally somewhat ghoulish). Georgia Ellis was cast as Kitty Russell. Parley Baer (who played Mayor Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show and was the voice of Ernie the Keebler Elf) was cast as Chester, Matt Dillon's assistant. The format of the radio show would be familiar to anyone who has seen the TV series. Matt Dillon was a U.S. Marshall based out of Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s. The show quickly became well known for its realism. In fact, many of the episodes were much more explicit than would be seen on the TV show, touching upon lynchings, massacres, various violent crimes, and even opium addiction. Although she was never called such on the show, it was hinted that Miss Kitty was a prostitute.

Gunsmoke soon became one of the most successful radio shows on the air. It also proved to be the first of a trend that would come to dominate film and later television in the Fifties, that of the "adult Western".  Within months of the radio show's debut on April 26 1952,  High Noon, regarded by many as the first "adult Western" film, was playing in theatres. The following year another adult Western film was released, Shane. The radio show Gunsmoke preceded them both.

Throughout its run on radio Gunsmoke topped the ratings and received widespread critical acclaim. In the end it would run until June 18 1961. Its demise was probably more due to the declining popularity of radio shows in light of television--it would be a little over a year later, September 30 1962, that CBS cancelled its last remaining traditional radio shows (Suspense, Yours Truly, and Johnny Dollar), bringing the era of Old Time Radio to an end.

Of course given the success of Gunsmoke on radio, nearly from the beginning there were those at CBS who wanted to bring the show to television.  Norman Macdonnell himself had serious doubts about Gumsmoke being adapted to television. In his words, Gunsmoke was "...perfect for radio." He worried that a television version of Gunsmoke, confined as it would be to a television picture, would not be as authentic as the radio show was to detail. In the end CBS decided to go ahead with a television version of Gunsmoke with or without Norman Macdonnell and John Meston. To adapt the radio show to television CBS hired Charles Marquis Warren, who had directed such films as Little Big Horn, Arrowhead, and Seven Angry Men. Mr. Warren would also serve as the producer on Gunsmoke for its first two seasons. John Meston was retained as the show's head writer while Mr. Macdonnell was a producer (after Mr. Warren left Mr. Macdonnell would become the show's primary producer, a position he kept until 1965).

With regards to casting, Norman Macdonnell and John Meston would have been happy enough to have retained the cast from the radio show for the television version, something with which Charles Marquis Warren disagreed.  In particular, William Conrad, who played the role on the radio show, was considered too heavy to play Matt Dillon. Contrary to popular belief, the role of Dillon was never offered to John Wayne, although he did introduce the first episode (Charles Marquis Warren knew John Wayne personally). Other actors were auditioned for the role, including Raymond Burr (also deemed to be to heavy, he would soon be cast as Perry Mason), Denver Pyle, and Richard Boone (who would go onto play Paladin on Have Gun--Will Travel). It was John Wayne who recommended a young actor named James Arness, who had appeared with Mr. Wayne in Hondo and Big Jim MacLain. In the role of Doc Addams was cast Milburn Stone, who had played on Broadway and in any many small parts in films. Amanda Blake, who had made several guest appearances on TV and appeared in small films, was cast as Miss Kitty. Cast as Chester, Dennis Weaver was a relative newcomer. He had made his first film appearance in 1952 and had appeared in various Westerns before receiving his role on Gunsmoke.

As might be expected, the television version of Gunsmoke was generally tamer than the radio show.  The television version of Doc was somewhat warmer than the radio version of Doc, who could be sharp tongued, morbid,  and even mercenary at times. While on the radio show it was hinted that Miss Kitty was a prostitute, in the TV series she merely worked at and later owned the Long Branch Saloon. While Gunsmoke could be a very violent TV show in its early seasons, it was still generally more family friendly than the radio version.

Surprisingly for a show that ran for twenty years and was one of three shows that started a whole boom in Westerns on TV in the late Fifties, Gunsmoke did not do spectacularly well in the ratings during its first season. It did not even crack the top thirty shows for the year. In its second season, however, it made it all the way to no. 8 in the Nielsens for the year.  With its third season it became the no. 1 show on the air, a position it maintained for the next three years.

Like most dramas in the mid-Fifties, the original television version of Gunsmoke was only a half hour in length. In fact, American broadcast network television's first hour Western with continuing characters debuted the same season that Gunsmoke did, fellow Western Cheyenne. As the Fifties progressed, hour long, episodic dramas began to dominate the small screen (everything from Perry Mason to the various Warner Bros. action shows), so that it became inevitable that Gunsmoke would eventually expand to an hour long format. It did so with the 1961-1962 season. Curiously, that season also saw the show drop from the no. 1 spot for the year to no. 3. Originally filmed in black and white, Gunsmoke would make the transition to colour with the 1966-1967 season.

Surprisingly for a show that ran for twenty seasons, Gunsmoke saw only a few major changes in its primary cast. Dennis Weaver, tired of playing Matt Dillon's sidekick Chester, left the show in 1964 to play the lead in the short lived show Kentucky Jones. He was replaced by hillbilly Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen, played by Ken Curtis, who remained with the show for the rest of its run. Various secondary characters came and went on the show. Glenn Strange (best known for playing Frankenstein's Creature in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) joined the cast as Sam the Bartender in 1961 and remained until 1973. Burt Reynolds played half Comanche blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962 to 1965. Roger Ewing played Deputy Marshall Thad Greenwood from 1966 to 1968. Buck Taylor played gunsmith Newly O'Brian from 1967 to the end of the show's run. After nineteen years Amanda Blake left the show in 1974.  As to James Arness and Milburn Stone, they both remained with the show for its entire run, although Stone missed seven episodes in 1971 due to an illness and was temporarily replaced by Pat Hingle.

While Gunsmoke began the Sixties still at the top of the ratings, its high ratings would not last. In the 1961-1962 season the groundbreaking movie anthology NBC Saturday Night at the Movies debuted opposite the then six year old oater. As NBC Saturday Night at the Movies began to climb in the ratings, Gunsmoke began to drop. With the 1962-1963 season it dropped from no. 3 to no. 10. With the 1963-1964 season it dropped to no. 20. Gunsmoke continued to drop until it reached a series low of no. 34 for the year in the 1966-1967 season.

Generally speaking, ranking no. 34 for the season would warrant the renewal of a series. In the 1966-1967 season, however, CBS was worried about its ageing audience. That season CBS cancelled three of its long running panel shows, I've Got a Secret What's My Line, and To Tell the Truth because their audiences were perceived as being too old. CBS also decided to cancel Gunsmoke for the same reason. The outcry over the cancellation of Gunsmoke was immediate. Critics and viewers alike were outraged. Senator Robert Byrd even criticised the network's decision on the Senate floor. Even with such outcry, it is quite possible that CBS would not have given Gunsmoke a reprieve had it not been for one thing. Quite simply, Gunsmoke was among the favourite shows of both William S. Paley and his wife Babe. When he saw that Gunsmoke was not on the fall 1967-1968 schedule, he immediately called CBS vice president Mike Dann and demanded that the show be renewed. With visions of losing their jobs, CBS' programmers then rushed to find a solution to their scheduling dilemma. Ultimately a solution was found by cancelling Gilligan's Island, a show that Mr. Paley had never cared for, and the brand new, yet to be aired sitcom Doc, which was not popular with CBS's affiliates. Gunsmoke would return in the 7:30 PM Eastern Monday time slot.

In its new time slot Gunsmoke made a remarkable recovery. It leapt to no. 4 in the ratings for the 1967-1968 season. What is more, it remained in the top ten for the next five seasons. Gunsmoke was still doing well in the 1974-1975 season, coming in at no. 28 for the year, when it was cancelled for the second and final time. Once again its cancellation apparently came because its audience was "too old".

Gunsmoke would be followed by five television movies:  Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987, Gunsmoke: The Last Apache in 1990, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man in 1992, Gunsmoke: The Long Ride in 1992, and Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice in 1994. For the first film Amanda Blake returned as Miss Kitty and Buck Taylor returned as Newly O'Brian. The other films featured only James Arness as Matt Dillon from the original cast (Amanda Blake had died in 1989).

Given its long run and its persistence in syndication (both in its half-hour and hour long formats), today it is easy to take Gunsmoke for granted. Upon its debut on television in 1955, however, it was a groundbreaking television show. Prior to Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (which was actually the first of the three to debut), and  Cheyenne, Western TV shows were made primarily for children, and action always took precedence over characterisation. Gunsmoke was a far cry from The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and other Westerns made for kids. The characters always took precedence over the plot, and characters often had complex motivations so that it was rare that anyone was entirely good or entirely bad. Indeed, Gunsmoke picked up its share of awards, particularly in its early days. It won the 1958 Emmy for Best Dramatic Series with Continuing Characters. Over the years both Dennis Weaver and Milburn Stone would take away Emmys for Best Supporting Actor.

Of course, the most lasting impact of Gunsmoke may be that, along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne, it triggered the boom in Westerns in the mid to late Fifties. As hard as it may be to believe now, in the late Fifties there were seasons when there was at least one Western on the American networks every single night of the week. What is more, the Fifties cycle towards Westerns would produce several shows now regarded as classics, including Have-Gun Will Travel, Maverick, The Rifleman, and Bonanza. It seems unlikely that any of these shows would have made it to the air had Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne had failed.

While Gunsmoke was not the only Western to debut in the 1955-1956 season, it was by far the most successful. Indeed, while many older people fondly remember Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke is probably the only one familiar to the American population as a whole, regardless of age. It has lasted for sixty years. One has to suspect it will last for sixty more.

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