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The Scene That Took Gunsmoke off the Air

When the beloved Western television series Gunsmoke finally came off the air in March of 1975, it had been in production for two decades! The show had been the number one program on television for several of it’s initial years, but had long-since worn out it’s welcome with both critics and the CBS network. The show’s 1975 cancellation after 20 seasons may have been a long time coming, but it came as a surprise to much of the series’ cast and producers as a result of poor communication from CBS. Because of this, the episode that ended up being aired as the show’s finale, titled “The Sharecroppers”, was not at all a fitting send-off for the character of Marshal Matt Dillon, nor the long-standing Western series itself. Join Facts Verse as we take a look behind the scene that took Gunsmoke off the air.

The Western television series Gunsmoke may seem run-of-the-mill by today’s standards, but the show was groundbreaking for numerous reasons. For one thing, it was one of the first big Western shows on television. For another thing, it went on to become the longest-running show of it’s time, and still stands as one of the long-running television series in history. After it’s 1955 premiere, Gunsmoke went on to last for 20 seasons before the CBS network decided to unceremoniously pull the plug on the long-standing Western series. The cancellation was a long time coming, as Gunsmoke hadn’t been faring well in the ratings for a while.

While one might assume that the fact that Gunsmoke was on the air for two decades may have called for some kind of ceremonious send-off for it’s characters upon the series end, the beloved Western series ended up having a decidedly anticlimactic series finale. Many in the television audience may not have realized that the show was even coming to an end if they didn’t check the newspaper. Similarly, much of the show’s cast and crew didn’t end up finding out that the show had been cancelled until they saw it in the papers!

The cast and crew of Gunsmoke not being made aware of the show’s cancellation during the production of it’s 20th season meant that the series finale ended up disappointing the majority of the show’s fans. Thankfully, the main character of Marshal Matt Dillon was brought back for a series of made-for-television features over a decade later.

The final new episode of Gunsmoke to air ended up being an episode by the name of “The Sharecroppers”, which was the 635th episode of the television series overall. Although the episode ended up unwittingly serving as the series’ finale, it was a very lighthearted episode that paid much more mind to the comparatively minor character of Festus than it did to Marshal Matt Dillon. The plot of the episode revolved around the character of Festus, as portrayed by actor and country singer Ken Curtis, accidentally shooting a stranger in the leg and then falling into comedic mishaps when he attempts to make the situation right. Festus carries the stranger back to the latter’s farmhouse, where the stranger’s family repeatedly imposes upon Festus in various ways.

While “The Sharecroppers” isn’t an exceptionally poor episode of Gunsmoke, it’s not a great series finale. If the producers of the series had known that the 20th season was going to be the show’s last, they would’ve made sure to have filmed a more appropriate episode to serve as a send-off for the series as a whole. Despite the fact that the cast and crew of Gunsmoke were unaware of the show’s cancellation during the production of it’s 20th season, the show’s future had been up in the air previously. Gunsmoke had only been a number one show for a handful of it’s earliest years, and it had long since been going down in the ratings. By the time of the show’s end, critics felt that it had long-since become outdated. Meanwhile, the CBS network had grown to despise the series. They had tried to pull the plug on the show previously, but their attempts were met with an outcry from it’s most diehard fans. By the time of the show’s 20th season, those diehard fans had grown few enough in number that their voices could no longer be heard.

The announcement of Gunsmoke’s cancellation after two decades of production came via the Associated Press just a month before the series’ final episode was to air. It was through this announcement that all but the highest-level employees at CBS learned about the cancellation. The announcement made light of the beloved series coming to an end, suggesting that the CBS network had successfully managed to kill Marshal Matt Dillon after two decades of the Western hero effortlessly evading all manner of villains.

Thankfully, James Arness, who played the character of Marshal Matt Dillon, went on to find work elsewhere. Not only that, but the character of Marshal Matt Dillon ended up being brought back in 1987, over a decade after Gunsmoke’s cancellation. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! Also, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

According to James Arness, who portrayed the character of Marshal Matt Dillon for all of Gunsmoke’s 20 seasons and went on to reprise the character in four made-for-television features, he and the rest of the cast of the series had expected at least one more season to be produced before the show was cancelled. However, they ended up having to make do with the situation that they were given. “The Sharecroppers” aired on March 31, 1975, and the character of Marshal Matt Dillon wasn’t seen again until 1987.

In addition to poking fun at the fact that the CBS network had managed to do what numerous Gunsmoke villains had failed to over the course of two decades of the show’s production, the announcement of the series cancellation in the Associated Press also alluded to the fact that series star James Arness was likely going to have trouble finding work after becoming used to playing the character of Marshal Matt Dillon for so long. Thankfully, this didn’t end up being the case. Although James was certainly typecast as a result of his iconic Western role for the rest of his life, this didn’t end up being too bad of a thing for the performer. Immediately following Gunsmoke’s cancellation, both him and series director John Mantley were approached by MGM to film a television reboot of the classic 1962 Western film How the West Was Won. Though the series that the two were working on was initially intended to be just a miniseries, the studio was so satisfied with the result that they ended up ordering three full seasons with James as the star.

Although “The Sharecroppers” was the last episode of Gunsmoke to air, it wasn’t the last episode of the series that was filmed. Instead, that honor went to the episode “Hard Labor”, which was the 20th episode of the show’s 20th and final season. While the episode wouldn’t have been much less of an anticlimactic finale than “The Sharecroppers” if it had been the final episode of the series to air instead of just the final one filmed, it’s plot at least revolved predominantly around the character of Marshal Matt Dillon, which is more than can be said of the show’s actual finale.

Thankfully, as we’ve established, the last episode of Gunsmoke didn’t end up being the end of Marshal Matt Dillon. Over a decade later, James Arness was brought back to portray the character in a 1987 made-for-television movie by the name of Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. Of course, the title of the film referred to the location of Dodge City, where the series took place and where Marshal Matt Dillon kept the law. The 1987 feature proved successful, and three more features followed in it’s wake. The final made-for-television feature was released in 1994, and was titled Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice. While the reactions of fans to the made-for-television quadrilogy was mixed, it’s hard to deny that the fourth made-for-television feature certainly served as a better end to both Gunsmoke and the character of Marshal Matt Dillon than “The Sharecroppers” had two decades earlier.

Besides James Arness, the only other star from the original series to return for Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge was Amanda Blake, who portrayed the character of Miss Kitty for 19 of Gunsmoke’s 20 seasons. Although Amanda had quit the series following it’s 19th season, she still felt passionate about the show and was incredibly angry at CBS executives for the way they treated the series’ remaining cast and crew upon deciding that it was time for it’s cancellation. Soon after the announcement was made in the Associated Press about Gunsmoke coming to an end, Amanda Blake could be quoted as saying that she wanted to take a brick to the head of CBS’ chief executive over what happened to the series.

Whiles James Arness and Amanda Blake returned for Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, many others sadly couldn’t return to reprise their characters for one reason or another. Besides James Arness, actor Milburn Stone was the only person that appeared in all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke’s 20-season run, portraying the character of Doc. Sadly, Millburn passed away between the end of Gunsmoke and the production of the follow-up made-for-television features. The actor passed away in 1980, at the age of 75. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Ken Curtis was asked back to reprise the role of Festus for Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, but negotiations fell through when he asked for too much money.

Although Gunsmoke was the longest-running television series of it’s time, the beloved Western program had a decidedly unceremonious ending as a result of unfair treatment from the CBS network. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that the final episode of Gunsmoke wasn’t the final episode filmed, and that it’s plot barely even revolved around main character Marshal Matt Dillon? 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!

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