Gunsmoke, America's longest running television Western, aired on CBS from 1955-75. In 1956, its second season on the air, the series entered the list of top ten programs on U.S. television and moved quickly to number one. It remained in that position until 1961 and in the top twenty until 1964. Following a shift in its programming time in 1967, Gunsmoke returned to prominence within the top twenty for the next seven years, dropping out only in its final year. From 1987 to the present there have been four Gunsmoke "reunion" programs, presented as two-hour, made-for-television movies.
This exceptionally successful program is often referred to as the medium's first "adult Western." The term is used to indicate differences between the Hollywood "B" Westerns and versions of the genre designed for the small screen in the 1950s and 1960s. Without recourse to panoramic vistas, thundering herds of cattle, and massed charges by "Indians" or the United States Cavalry, the television Western often concentrated on character relationships and tense psychological drama. Gunsmoke set the style and tone for many of these shows.
Set in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1890s, the series focused on the character of United States Marshall, Matt Dillon, played by James Arness. The part was designed for John Wayne, who chose not to complicate his still-successful film career with commitment to a long-term television contract. Wayne, who appeared on air to introduce the first episode of Gunsmoke, suggested the younger actor for the lead role. The tall, rugged-looking Arness, who until this time had played minor film roles, became synonymous with his character during the next twenty years.
Surrounding Dillon were characters who became one of television's best known "work-place families." Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) owned and managed a local saloon, The Longbranch, and over the years developed a deep friendship with Dillon that always seemed to border on something more intimate. Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) represented science, rationality and crusty wisdom. His medical skills were never questioned and he patched up everyone on the show, often more than once. Dennis Weaver portrayed tender-hearted and gullible Chester Goode, Deputy Marshall. Chester's openness and honesty were often played against frontier villainy, and his loyalty to Dillon was unquestionable. When Weaver left the show in 1964 he was replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus Hagen, a character equally adept at providing humor in the often grim world of Dodge and a foil to the taciturn and sometimes obsessive professionalism of Dillon. Burt Reynolds appeared on Gunsmoke from 1962-65 in the role of Quint Asper.
While Gunsmoke had its share of shoot-outs, bank robberies, cattle rustlings, and the like, the great strength of the program was the ongoing exploration of life in this community, with these people, in this place, at this time. In Gunsmoke, Dodge City stands as an outpost of civilization, the edge of America at the end of a century. It is one of the central images of the Western in any of its media creations--a small town, a group of professionals, perhaps a school and a church, surrounded by the dangers of the frontier, its values of peace, harmony, and justice always under threat from untamed forces. Such a setting becomes a magnified experiment for the exploration of fundamental ideas about American culture and society. Issues faced by the characters and community in Gunsmoke ranged from questions of legitimate violence to the treatment of minority groups, from the meaning of family to the power of religious commitment. Even topics drawn from American life in the 1950s and 1960s were examined in this setting. The historical frame of the Western, and television's reliance on well-known, continuing characters allowed a sense of distance and gave producers the freedom to treat almost any topic.
The dramatic formula for the series, particularly in later years, was simple. Some type of "outsider"--a family separated from a wagon train, an ex-Confederate officer, a wandering theatre troupe--entered the world of the regular characters. With the outsiders came conflict. With the conflict came the need for decision and action. If violence was called for, it was applied reluctantly. If compassion was the answer, it was available. Often, no solution so simple solved the problems. Many sides of the same issue could be presented, especially when moral problems, not action and adventure, were the central concerns. In such cases Gunsmoke often ended in ambiguity, requiring the ideas and issues to be pondered by viewers. As the series progressed into its last seasons, it became highly self-conscious of its own history. Characters explored their own motivations with some frequency, and memories became plot devices.
In the history of American popular culture, Gunsmoke has claimed a position of prominence. Innovative within traditional trappings, it testified to the breadth and resilience of the Western genre and to television's ability to interweave character, idea and action into narratives that could attract and compel audiences for decades.
Marshal Matt Dillon................................... James Arness
Dr. Galen (Doc) Adams............................. Milburn Stone
Kitty Russell (1955-1974).......................... Amanda Blake
Chester Goode (1955 1964)...................... Dennis Weaver
Festus Haggen (1964-1975)............................ Ken Curtis
Miss Hannah (1974-1975)............................... Fran Ryan
Charles Warren, John Mantley, Phillip Leacock, Norman MacDonald, Joseph Drackow, Leonard Katzman
233 Half-hour Episodes; 400 One-hour Episodes
September 1955-September 1961 Saturday 10:00-10:30
September 1961-September 1967 Saturday l0:00-11:00
October 1961-June 1964 Tuesday 7:30-8:00
September 1967-September 1971 Monday 7:30-8:30
September 1971-September 1975 Monday 8:00-9:00
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Jackson, Ronald. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. Seacaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1994.
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Morhaim, Joe. "Why Gunsmoke's Amanda Blake, James Arness Won't Kiss." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 15 March 1958.
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Whitney, Dwight. "Why Gunsmoke Keeps Blazing." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 6 December 1958.
_______________. "What's Gunsmoke's Secret." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 22 August 1970.
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