Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I rather suspect that most people take Gunsmoke for granted. At most, they might know that it is the longest running American primetime show with continuing characters. There can be little doubt that many think, erroneously, that it was the show that started the Western Cycle on American television in the late Fifties. Regardless, it actually does occupy an important place in American television history.

Of course, the origins of Gunsmoke go back to radio. Among CBS Radios's most successful shows in the late Forties was The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. In fact, none other than William S. Paley, CBS chairman and founder, was a huge fan of the series. He then approached the 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." 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 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 Culver as Dillon. Unfortunately, Gunsmoke would not yet make it to the air. Howard's contract with Straight Arrow restricted him from doing any other Western show. The project was then shelved indefinitely.

This brings us to another predecessor to Gunsmoke. Norman MacDonnell and John Meston adapted an Ernest Haycox Western short story as "Pagosa," an episode of the radio show Romance which 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 another adult oriented Western as an episode of the radio show Escape, "Wild Jack Rhett," which aired on the show on Dec 17 1950, also based on an Ernest Haycox story. MacDonnell and Meston came up with the idea of 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 to audition scripts of "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye," scripts which were remarkably similar to their concept.

Fortunately, for 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 clear Miss Kitty was a prostitute.

Gunsmoke soon became one of the most successful radio shows on the air. And, in fact, it soon proved to be the harbinger of a trend. Within months of its debut on April 26, 1952, an adult Western movie, High Noon, was playing in theatres. The following year another adult Western film was released, Shane. The radio show Gunsmoke preceded them both. Gunsmoke topped the ratings from the very beginning 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).

The phenomenal success of Gunsmoke from the beginning also meant from the beginning there were those at CBS who wanted to adapt it to television. Norman MacDonnell himself has serious doubts about a television adaptation. He thought Gunsmoke was "...perfect for radio." He also feared that the television show, confined as it would be to a picture, would not be as authentic as the radio show was to detail. In the end, however, CBS decided to go ahead with a TV adaptation, with or without McDonnell and Meston. The man hired to adapt Gunsmoke for television was Charles Marquis Warren. Warren had directed such films as Little Big Horn, Arrowhead, and Seven Angry Men. Warren would also serve as the show's producer for its first two seasons. Meston was kept on the head writer while MacDonnell was a producer (he would become the show's primary producer until 1965, after Warren left).

MacDonnell and Meston had wanted to simply use the radio cast in the same roles on television, although Warren had other ideas. In particular, William Contrad 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 (Wayne knew Warren). Other actors were auditioned for the role, including Raymond Burr (later Perry Mason, he was also deemed too heavy), Denver Pyle, and Richard Boone (who would go onto play Paladin on Have Gun--Will Travel). John Wayne, who knew Warren,did recommend a young actor named James Arness, who had appeared with 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.

For show that lasted 21 years, Gunsmoke had very few cast changes. While various other characters would come and go from the cast. the major cast more or less remained the same. Tired of playing Dillon's deputy, Weaver left the show in 1964 to play the lead in the short lived show Kentucky Jones. He was replaced by hillbilly deputy Marshal Festus, played by Ken Curtis. Blake left the show in 1974, after nineteen years. Both James Arness and Milburn Stone remained with the show for its full run, although Stone missed seven episodes in 1971 due to an illness and was temporarily replaced by Pat Hingle.

While the TV series Gunsmoke was very realistic for a television Western of its time, it was not quite as realistic as the radio. Much of the subject matter covered on the radio show could not be covered on the TV show. As to Miss Kitty's profession, there was absolutely no clue that she was anything other than a saloon keeper except for the 1971 episode "Waste," in which a woman asks Matt how the law overlooks Miss Kitty's business. It seemed quite clear from this that she was a madam. Regardless, Gunsmoke dealt with some very serious topics, including racism, violence, religion, the importance of family, and so on.

Like the radio show Gunsmoke received critical acclaim and high ratings from its debut. By its second season, 1956-1957, it ranked number 8 in the top rated shows for the seasons. By the following year it would be the number one show on television, a position it would hold for four years. Here it must be stressed that Gunsmoke was not the show which started the Western cycle of the Fifties. In the 1955-1956 two other adult Westerns had also debuted. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was actually the first debut on ABC on September 6, 1955. Gunsmoke debuted a few days later on CBS on September 10, 1955. The last of the three, Cheyenne, debuted on September 20, 1955. All three show did respectively well in the ratings, each one of them ranking in the top twenty for the year at one time or another. It was most likely the success of all three shows that led to the rush to make Western TV shows in the late Fifties.

As to Gunsmoke, its ratings would not remain so high forever. By 1961-1962, it had dropped to number three for the year, knocked out of the top spot by two other Westerns, Wagon Train and Bonanza. Gunsmoke slowly slipped in the ratings, first to #10 in the 1962 to 1963 season, then to #20 by the 1963-1964 season. It was for the ratings in the 1964 to 1965 season that it was not ranked in the top twenty for the first time in nine years. Gunsmoke would also make a major change. By the Sixties most dramas were now one hour long. Gunsmoke then expanded from a half hour to an hour in the 1961-1962 season.

Sadly, my the 1966-1967 season Gunsmoke had fallen drastically in the ratings. CBS executive then decided to cancel the already twelve year old oater. Most likely the decline in ratings was not due to the switch to an hour long format, but more likely the fact that the Western cycle of the Fifties had ended in 1961. A new cycle in the mid-Sixties had produced no truly hit shows. Westerns, with the exception of Bonanza and The Virginian, were on their way out. Regardless, Gunsmoke would not remain cancelled for long. CBS got many angry letters and call. Worse yet, Gunsmoke was the favourite show of William S. Paley's wife, and apparently he liked it a good deal as well. He basically told his executives to find Gunsmoke a new time slot or find themselves new jobs. Gunsmoke was then moved to a new Monday night time slot. To make way for the old Western, Gilligan's Island (which had occupied the spot) and a new sitcom called Doc (which hadn't even aired yet) were cancelled. Gilligan's Island was still getting very good ratings, but it was a show that Paley had always detested for the bad reviews it received.

The new time slot breathed new life into Gunsmoke. For 1967-1968 season it jumped to #3 in the yearly ratings. It remained there for a seven full years. It was in its final season, the 1974-1975 season, that the show was finally cancelled. The cancellation came as a surprise to the cast, who had expected it to run at least another season, maybe more. Regardless, by that point Gunsmoke had the set record it still holds--the longest running American TV show with continuing characters of all time (a full 21 years).

Gunsmoke would have five reunion 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.

By sheer virtue of its exceedingly long run, Gunsmoke could be the most influential Western TV show of all time. It was one of the three Western TV shows to start the cycle towards Westerns in the Fifties. Of the three shows it was the most successful, and perhaps the most influential as well. In the wake of Gunsmoke would arrive other intelligent Westerns, including Have Gun Will-Travel, The Rifleman, Rawhide, The Rebel, and others. It was Gunsmoke that largely took the TV Western away from shoot outs and saloon to fights to more cerebral fare.


J. Marquis said...

I remember our family going to a rodeo near Boise and the actors who played Doc and Festus were the guests of honor.

Bob Dylan said...

I liked Chester.