Did you grow up watching the great American Western show Gunsmoke? This was a spinoff from a long-running radio series that entertained millions of Americans. When the show transitioned from the radio to television, it became a cultural phenomenon.
The show’s success was due to its superb writing and direction. But the main reason for the show’s success was its onscreen talent. The Gunsmoke cast is an ensemble of some of the finest actors and actresses that America has produced.
Generations both young and old will forever entertained by the tale of Marshal Matt Dillon as he attempts to keep the peace in Dodge City.
Sadly, many of the main Gunsmoke cast members are no longer with us. Let’s look back at their fascinating lives and catch up with one of the gunsmoke cast still alive and surviving members of the main cast…
Gunsmoke was the classic Western tale of a troubled town that needed someone to make sure that law and order was enforced. In the original radio series, William Conrad voiced the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.
In the television series, Matt Dillon was played by actor James Arness. James Arness was born in Minneapolis in 1913 as the son of businessman Rolf Arness and his wife, Ruth, who was a journalist.
As a young man, he had a variety of odd jobs including working as a courier for a jewelry business, loading and unloading railway boxcars, as well as a stint as a logger in Idaho.
He would later serve in World War II and was given many laurels for his service including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the World War II Victory Medal.
After finishing his service, he returned to Minneapolis where he found work as a radio announcer. The showbiz bug had bit him, and he was determined to find work in films!
He found work in many great films including The Farmer’s Daughter, The Thing From Another World, Hondo, Gun the Man Down, and Big Jim McLain. Much of his later roles involved acting alongside classic Western hero John Wayne.
The two of them became great friends and rumor has it that John Wayne turned down a role in a new TV series and recommended that James Arness get the role! That role, of course, was to play Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke.
James Arness played the role throughout the series entire run from 1955 to 1975. After Gunsmoke ended, he found fame in two other classic shows – How the West Was Won and McClain’s Law. However, it’s his work in Gunsmoke that we’ll always remember and love him for.
He passed away from natural causes in 2011.
Every great Western show or film has to have a few scenes in a saloon. This saloon has to be run by a beautiful proprietress. In Gunsmoke, the saloon proprietress was Kitty, and she was played by actress Amanda Blake.
Amanda Blake had spent much of her early career working in films. She mostly had bit parts with the occasional lead or supporting role. Her big break is in Gunsmoke when she casted as Kitty – a role she played for 19 years – quitting a year before the show ended. When asked why she quit her role, she joked “Nineteen years is a hell of a long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar.”
Amanda Blake spent the remainder of her career landing roles in television shows and occasional films. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 60 in 1989 due to complications from the AIDS virus. It’s believed that she contracted the virus from her fourth husband Mark Spaeth.
Who can forget the beloved Doc Adams from Gunsmoke? He appeared in over 600 episodes and became one of the favorite supporting characters. He was played by actor Milburn Stone who had a long career in films. Among these varied films included work in the classic John Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln and Samuel Fuller’s classic film-noir Pickup on South Street.
But he catapulted to fame when he got the role in Gunsmoke. He loved the role and could have easily appeared in all 635 episodes. Unfortunately, he began having heart problems in the early 1970s. He underwent heart surgery following a heart attack and didn’t appear in several episodes. He returned toward the end of the show following his recovery.
However, after Gunsmoke ended, Milburn Stone’s health was never the same. He retired from acting and passed away from a heart attack in 1980.
Another great character from the show was Chester, played by Dennis Weaver. Chester was the stiff-legged deputy who helped Matt Dillon keep the peace in Dodge City. Dennis Weaver had experience acting in plays and had a few bit parts in films.
His big break came when he joined the Gunsmoke cast to play Chester. He actually failed his first audition but request to have a second chance. In the second audition, he put on a stronger country accent and added a bit of humor to his line reading.
That second audition landed him the role and any fan of Gunsmoke cannot imagine anyone but Dennis Weaver playing Chester. Dennis played Chester in 290 episodes and left the show in 1964. He later became the star of his own show Kentucky Jones.
Dennis continued to act in film and television for the rest of his career. This included work in shows such as Stone and Buck James. He also had a role in Duel – one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest films.
His final role was as “Henry” in the show Wildfire. He passed away in 2006 due to complications from cancer.
Marshal Matt Dillon’s sidekick was Festus, played by Ken Curtis. Ken Curtis had years of experience acting in film and television – including roles in many great Westerns such as the film The Alamo and the TV show Rawhide.
He also had a brief career as a singer. But his big break came when casted as Festus in Gunsmoke. He played a few one-off characters in earlier seasons of the show but joined as Festus in the 8th season.
He became a permanent member of the cast with the 9th season. Festus was also one of the most loved characters on the show and it was as Festus that Ken Curtis found fame.
He spent much of his later career in television including playing Hoyt Coryell in The Yellow Rose. He passed away in 1991 from a heart attack in his sleep.
There was one actor who had a smaller role in Gunsmoke appearing as ‘Quint’ in 50 episodes from 1962 to 1965. But this actor would eventually become larger than life and considered as an icon of American entertainment.
That actor, was none other than Burt Reynolds. By this time, Burt Reynolds had spent much of his career playing bit parts in film and television. His most notable work had been as Ben Frazer in the show Riverboat.
But it was Gunsmoke that gave him his big break. Audiences loved the charm and charisma of the handsome actor. It was after Gunsmoke that he continued to get regular work. He solidified his position as one of America’s finest actors in films such as Smokey and the Bandit, The Longest Yard, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and of course Deliverance – which he considered to be his best film.
Even as he aged, he continued to act in great films such as Citizen Ruth, Striptease, Boogie Nights, and the film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Burt Reynolds never stopped working with the film An Innocent Kiss release after his death. In 2021, we can expect his final film Defining Moments to get release.
He passed away in 2018 from a heart attack.
From the main Gunsmoke cast still alive, Buck Taylor who played ‘Newly’ is still with us. He spent much of his early career taking minor roles in films and television shows. He had an affinity with the Western genre and began taking on roles in Western films and TV shows.
Like other members of the Gunsmoke cast, he got his big break when he joined the show. He played cowboy Newly O’Brian in 1967. This made him an icon of the Western genre and he has received awards from many Western museums since then.
These awards include the Wrangler award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma and the Trail of Fame in Dodge City, Kansas – which is where Gunsmoke set!
After Gunsmoke, Buck Taylor he continued to get regular work in film and television. His most recent appearance has been as Emmet Walsh in the TV show Yellowstone. He’s currently starring in a film called The Captives which is in the pre-production phase.
He’s grateful for the opportunities that Gunsmoke gave him and is always happy to discuss the show with his fans as one of the gunsmoke cast still alive.
So, next time you watch your favorite episodes of Gunsmoke, take a moment to appreciate the incredible lives of the stars behind the characters and also the gunsmoke cast still alive. Many of them struggled to make their names in the entertainment industry. With Gunsmoke they gave us one of the greatest shows in the history of American television. And for that, we’ll always be grateful!
Are you a fan of Gunsmoke? Do you think that the show still resonates with audiences today with the gunsmoke cast still alive? Or is it up to us diehard fans to continue to promote the great show and the legendary actors who entertained us each season?