Gunsmoke was one of the first primetime television Westerns to take the genre seriously, but there are plenty of things that fans don’t know about the beloved program’s 20-season run. Join Facts Verse as we take a look at huge details you didn’t notice in Gunsmoke.
Gunsmoke first premiered on television in 1955. The first episode aired on September 10 of that year, and the show would go on to last for 20 seasons. The show became incredibly influential, leading to many more primetime television Westerns in it’s wake. Because of this, many in the television audience today don’t fully understand just how groundbreaking the show was for it’s time.
Four days prior to the premiere of Gunsmoke, a show by the name of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp had premiered. That show was the first primetime television Western that was written with an audience of adults in mind. While The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was the show that premiered first, Gunsmoke was the show that went on to have the biggest impact when it came to Westerns on television.
Before the introduction of shows such as Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the only Westerns that were available on television were shows like The Lone Ranger. Most of the Westerns available on television were serials that were designed with an audience of children in mind, and Gunsmoke became one of the first television programs to offer the veritable “true grit” that audiences had come to expect from Westerns on the big screen.
Despite the fact that Gunsmoke didn’t premiere on television until 1955, it had been a beloved radio show for several years before making the leap to the new medium. “Matt Gets It” was the name of the first episode of the television series, though it’s plot had been taken from a concept that had been explored previously on the radio program. When the series made it’s premiere on television, the cast and crew gathered at the home of star James Arness to watch it. James was married to an actress by the name of Virginia Chapman at the time. Virginia had a son from a previous marriage, and James had become his adopted father.
James Arness hadn’t been the network’s first choice for portraying the character of Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon. However, he ended up being the right choice for the job. The network had originally been trying to secure John Wayne for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon, but the movie star wasn’t comfortable with committing to a weekly series. However, John Wayne did recommend his friend, who turned out to be James Arness. Given James’ rugged looks and intimidating stature, he proved to be the exact right person for the job.
Although John Wayne had opted out of taking the starring role in the Gunsmoke television series, he was talked into lending his credibility by filming an intro for the series that played before the show’s premiere. The cast and crew hadn’t been made aware of the intro, so they were all pleasantly taken aback when John Wayne appeared on the screen while they were watching the premiere at James’ house.
During John Wayne’s introduction to the premiere of Gunsmoke, he warned the audience that he wasn’t going to be in the actual program. However, he did give his blessing to the show by saying that it was one of the most impressive works of it’s kind that the legendary actor had ever seen. Given that John knew a thing or two about the Western genre, his opinion truly meant something to the audience.
Besides the surprise introduction featuring John Wayne, the first episode of Gunsmoke was full of little secrets that audience members with keen eyes and an infinity for the Western genre could spot. One such Easter egg was the appearance of a wanted poster for notorious outlaw Billy the Kid on the wall of Marshal Matt Dillon’s office.
Prior to the 1955 premiere of Gunsmoke on television, another actor had portrayed the character of Marshal Matt Dillon for the Gunsmoke radio show. That actor’s name was William Conrad. William continued to play the role of Matt on the radio show, although he had been deemed too fat to play the role on television. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! As well, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
There are many more interesting factoids about the beloved television Western Gunsmoke that not even the show’s biggest fans may know about. One such factoid included who was really the man that played the gunfighter in the show’s memorable opening credits. Arvo Ojala was the man responsible for playing the gunfighter that Marshal Matt Dillon memorably pulls his gun on during Gunsmoke’s intro sequence. While this name might not sound familiar to audiences, Arvo was a notable gun specialist that helped many actors and actresses prepare for roles in Westerns.
Arvo Ojala’s incredibly fast quick-draw made him the perfect person to portray the villain in Gunsmoke’s opening sequence! In addition to portraying the villain in the show’s opening, Arvo was also the one that trained James Arness how to accurately portray Marshal Matt Dillon as an experienced gunslinger. Not only that, but Arvo also got to work with many other notable actors and actresses during his career, including Paul Newman, James Garner, Robert Culp, and even the legendary bombshell Marilyn Monroe!
Besides James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, another actor that featured in the very first television episode of Gunsmoke was Paul Richards. Paul Richards played the episode’s villain, a man by the name of Dan Grat. Subsequently, Paul would appear on the program two more times over the course of it’s two-decade run, each time playing a different character. When all was said and done, 635 episodes of the Gunsmoke television series were produced.
Prior to Gunsmoke’s 1955 television premiere, the radio program had been broadcast since 1952. After Gunsmoke came to an end, the property continued to be revived in the form of various reunion movies until 1994. Because of this, Gunsmoke can be declared a rare media franchise that lasted in some capacity for nearly half of a century.
While James Arness certainly made a name for himself as a hero on the screen via his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon, he was also a hero in real life. James saw active combat in the Battle of Anzio during World War II. During the battle, James received numerous injuries, earning both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The injuries would go on to plague Matt for the rest of his life, inhibiting his ability to walk. Because of this, Gunsmoke’s shooting schedule had to be lenient on the actor when it came to filming walking scenes. Although walking scenes could still be filmed, they had to be filmed relatively sporadically, and earlier in the day.
Because Gunsmoke lasted for two decades and produced over 600 episodes, it proved the perfect breeding ground for future television stars. Many future television stars performed guest-starring roles on Gunsmoke during the early days of their careers, including William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Gary Busey also appeared in one of the show’s final episodes, with his character going down in history as the last person that Marshal Matt Dillon ever shot down!
Over the course of Gunsmoke’s two-decade run, James Arness was the only actor to appear in every single one of the show’s 635 episodes. However, there was another actor that appeared throughout each of Gunsmoke’s 20 seasons, and that actor was Milburn Stone. Milburn Stone portrayed the character of Doc. Though he didn’t feature in every single episode, he was there throughout the whole run.
James Arness’ portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon went on to define the character for the television audience, but there were many other actors that had been considered for the part. Besides John Wayne, other actors that almost beat James to the role included the aforementioned William Conrad, as well as Raymond Burr. Just as with William Conrad, Raymond Burr ended up being considered too rotund to play the part. It has been said that a total of 26 actors screen-tested for the role, with James eventually beating all of them thanks to both his intimidating appearance and John Wayne’s recommendation.
While the Gunsmoke television series lasted until the 1970s, the radio show came to an end in 1961, with over 400 episodes produced. Radio and television weren’t the only mediums that Gunsmoke became popular on, however. In the UK, the show was known as Gun Law, and the popularity of the series there led to a comic strip of the same name. This comic strip ran in the UK’s Daily Express, starting in 1957 and lasting all the way until 1978. Artist Harry Bishop drew the art for the comic strip, lending a realistic style that carried over the show’s gritty take on the Western genre.
Although Gunsmoke ended up lasting for two decades, there was a moment in 1967 when it appeared as if the seminal Western television series was about to come to an early end. The show’s ratings were slipping, and many at the network wanted to pull the plug. However, the president of the network happened to be a personal fan of the series, so he decided to give the show a new timeslot to see if that would help with ratings. The only trouble was, the timeslot that he gave Gunsmoke already belonged to Gilligan’s Island! Because of this, Gilligan’s Island was taken off the air, and Gunsmoke went on to last for several more years.
There’s more trivia about the seminal television Western Gunsmoke than can fit in any single video! Comment down below to share if you have an interesting factoid about the beloved Western franchise that didn’t make it into our video, or if you were surprised to learn about any of the aforementioned bits of trivia related to the series! As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!