1 9 5 5 – 1 9 7 5 (USA)
233 x 30 minute episodes
402 x 60 minute episodes
Before Gunsmoke, all Westerns were like Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger – basically kids stuff. This was the first adult Western which really emphasised character and adult themes.
The show originally started on CBS Radio in 1952, with William Conrad in the role of Sheriff Matt Dillon. When CBS decided to make a TV version of the popular radio series, the first choice for the role was John Wayne.
Wayne would probably have done very well in the role, but he did not want to commit himself to the rigours of a weekly television serial and suggested James Arness, a young relatively unknown actor friend of his.
Wayne even offered to introduce the programme’s first episode, an offer which was quickly accepted by the CBS brass.
James Arness, six feet seven inches in height, was even bigger physically than The Duke, and he proved to be perfect casting for the role of the heroic marshal.
Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, on the banks of the Arkansas River. The year, arbitrarily, was 1873 according to producer John Mantley.
The show’s black hat vs. white hat themes and the longest flirtation in history – Matt Dillon (Arness) and Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), who never did get together – saw the show stay in the saddle for 20 seasons making it the longest-running western.
Crusty old Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), the town’s kindly sympathetic physician, was the only other cast member besides Arness to stay with the show for its entire run. Doc spent most of his spare time – as did most of the citizens of Dodge City – at the Long Branch Saloon, which was owned and operated by Miss Kitty.
Kitty was extremely soft-hearted, beneath a very business-like exterior, and would have willingly become romantically involved with Matt.
In the radio version, the implication was that she was a prostitute, but on TV Matt and Kitty exchanged no more than smiles.
Matt’s loyal and well-meaning deputy was Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), who walked with a pronounced limp talked with a twang and brewed a mean pot of coffee – which was often seen behind the closing credits.
Over the years there were changes in the supporting cast. Chester left in 1964 to be replaced by Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), the scruffy, illiterate hillbilly deputy who remained for the rest of the run (pictured at left).
Half-breed Indian Quint Asper (a young Burt Reynolds) was featured for a while as the town blacksmith, as were gunsmith Newly O’Brien (Buck Taylor) and Matt’s young friend Thad Greenwood (Roger Ewing).
In addition to the principal cast members, there was an extensive supporting cast of Dodge City residents who appeared from time to time: Miss Hannah (Fran Ryan) ran the Long Branch Saloon after Kitty’s departure; Lathrop (Woody Chambliss) was storekeeper; Halligan (Charles Wagenheim) and O’Connor (Tom Brown) were local ranchers; Louie (James Nusser), the town drunk; Barney (Charles Seel), the telegraph agent; Howie (Howard Culver), the hotel clerk; Percy (John Harper), the Dodge City undertaker; Hank (Hank Patterson), the stableman; Nathan (Ted Jordan), the freight agent; Mr Bodkin (Roy Roberts), the banker, and Ma Smalley (Roy Roberts), the boarding-house owner.
As the years passed, less and less was seen of Matt. Stories often revolved around other members of the cast while the marshal was out of town and Gunsmoke frequently resembled an anthology as stories came to centre on guest stars, using Dodge City simply as a backdrop.
CBS aired reruns of the original half-hour series under the title Marshal Dillon. Two telemovies were made in the late 1980s – Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge and Gunsmoke: The Last Apache.
The series was originally broadcast in the UK under the title Gun Law.
Deputy Chester Goode
Miss Kitty Russell
Deputy Festus Haggen
Galen ‘Doc’ Adams
Sam, the bartender
Clayton Thaddeus ‘Thad’ Greenwood