Synopsis of TV Show
Nobody maintained TV law and order for longer than Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon. As played by James Arness for a full twenty years, Marshal Matt was everything we wanted in a lawman: tough but fair, strong but good, quick on the draw but slow to violence. With Matt on the job in lawless Dodge City, Kansas (“the Gomorrah of the West”), Gunsmoke was not only one of the most popular shows on television, it was TV’s longest-running drama, hitting the Top 10 in three separate decades of cultural change. True TV institutions are rare, but of the many television westerns of the 50’s and 60’s, Gunsmoke has surely earned the right to hang its cowboy hat in the hall of greats.
Set in the late 1800’s, Gunsmoke’s legendary run actually began in 1952, when it debuted as a radio program with William Conrad in the Matt Dillon role. The key to the show’s success was right there in its name: “Gunsmoke,” the smoking gun. Marshal Dillon may have preferred to settle arguments with words, but when the six-shooters started firing, he could hang with the best of them. From the beginning, Gunsmoke built its reputation on a mix of compelling character drama and the satisfying shoot-outs the kids had all been waiting for.
When the show moved to television in 1955, producer Norman Macdonnell wanted John Wayne to take over the U.S. Marshal’s role, but Wayne suggested the relatively unknown James Arness (brother of Peter Graves) instead. Wayne did agree to introduce the show’s first episode, which brought to TV screens not only Marshal Dillon, but a cast of faces that would become as familiar as old friends over the next two decades. Amanda Blake played Kitty Russell, owner of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge. Milburn Stone took on the role of Dodge City physician Doc Galen Adams, while Dennis Weaver added comic relief and a second gun as the limping, coffee-brewing deputy Chester B. Goode.
With this lineup (and a supporting cast that included storekeeper Wilbur Jonas, stableman Moss Grimmick and hotel clerk Howie Uzzell, among others), Gunsmoke offered a more grown-up, realistic Western than the fantasy life of The Lone Ranger and fellow kids’ shows. It took a while to catch on, but when it did, Gunsmoke was the biggest thing on television. The show was a fixture in the Top 10 for the latter half of the 1950’s, and it was the #1 program from 1957-1961. Kids tuned in for the gruff talk and action, while adults were fascinated by the “are they ever going to fall in love or what?” relationship between Matt and Miss Kitty.
The circle of supporting characters continued to expand—blacksmith Quint Asper (a young Burt Reynolds), bartender Clem, town drunk Louie Pheeters, townsman Thad Greenwood, gunsmith Newly O’Brien, boardinghouse owner Ma Smalley, stableman Hank Miller, telegraph operator Barney Danches, banker Mr. Bodkin, rancher Ed O’Connor, stagecoach driver Jim Buck and many more—but the focus was always on the tight unit of Marshal Matt, Miss Kitty, Doc Adams and Matt’s deputies (backwoodsman Festus Haggen replaced Chester in 1964).
After its fourth year at #1, CBS decided to expand the show to a full hour (it began as a half-hour program), while the half-hour programs were shown as Marshal Dillon on Tuesday nights through 1964. By the middle of the 1960’s, however, Gunsmoke was starting to struggle in the ratings, as Bonanza and others took its familiar place atop the Nielsen charts. CBS nearly cancelled the show, but viewer outrage (never underestimate the power of Marshal Matt’s fan club) led the network to move the show from Saturday nights to Monday. Almost immediately, Gunsmoke took on new life. The show tackled contemporary issues in its Western setting, keeping it relevant to a new generation, while its long-time fans pushed it back into the Top 10 for the next several years.
After 19 years on the show, Amanda “Miss Kitty” Blake made a memorable farewell in 1974, and Gunsmoke bowed out the following season. Arness and Milburn “Doc Adams” Stone had stayed with the show for the full twenty seasons (an astonishing 633 episodes), but it was time to take off the gun belt and hang up the spurs. Arness did return to Dodge for a handful of TV movies in the 80’s and 90’s, however (as did Blake for the first one), giving Western fans another chance to celebrate the most durable lawman in TV’s West. Marshal Dillon, we tip our hat to you.
Release History of Prime Time Show9/10/55 - 9/1/75 CBS
TV Sub Categoriesdrama
TV CastMarshal Matt Dillon James Arness
Chester B. Goode (1955-64) Dennis Weaver
Dr. Galen 'Doc' Adams Milburn Stone
Kitty Russell (1955-74) Amanda Blake
Quint Asper, blacksmith (1962-65) Burt Reynolds
Festus Haggen, deputy (1964-75) Ken Curtis
Thad Greenwood, deputy (1965-67) Roger Ewing
Newly O'Brien, gunsmith (1967-75) Buck Taylor
Wilbur Jonas, storekeeper (1955-63) Dabbs Greer
Howie Uzzell, hotel clerk (1955-75) Howard Culver
Moss Grimmick, stableman (1955-63) George Selk
Jim Buck, stagecoach driver (1957-62) Robert Brubaker
Clem, bartender (1959-61) Clem Fuller
Louie Pheeters, town drunk (1961-70) James Nusser
Ma Smalley, boardinghouse owner (1961-72) Sarah Selby
Sam, bartender (1961-73) Glenn Strange
Hank Miller, stableman (1963-75) Hank Patterson
Mr. Bodkin, banker (1963-70) Roy Roberts
Barney Danches, telegraph agent (1965-74) Charles Seel
Roy, townsman (1965-69) Roy Barcroft
Rudy, bartender (1965-67) Rudy Sooter
Halligan, rancher (1966-75) Charles Wagenheim
Mr. Lathrop, storekeeper (1966-75) Woody Chambliss
Nathan Burke, freight agent (1966-75) Ted Jordan
Percy Crump, undertaker (1968-72) Kelton Garwood
Ed O'Connor, rancher (1968-72) Tom Brown
Judge Brooker (1970-75) Herb Vigran
Dr. John Chapman (1971) Pat Hingle
Miss Hannah, saloon owner (1974-75) Fran Ryan
Floyd, bartender (1974-75) Robert Brubaker