Radio programs were once the way to get families to come together for entertainment. Nothing thrilled audiences quite like a cowboy story of right versus wrong in those days. It was the perfect time for Gunsmoke, once known as Gun Law.
The program became a TV show in 1952. It began as a half-hour program then extended to an hour slot. It’s the second-longest TV program of all time and earned five Emmys over two decades. It well-crafted and expertly cast, but it did make mistakes.
Keep watching to learn about the best Gunsmoke bloopers and hidden facts.
Unforgettable Cast and Guest Stars
Polly Pond was the first choice for the part of Miss Kitty Russell. She turned it down, and Amanda Blake eagerly picked it up.
Marshall Matt Dillon was the most difficult role to cast. William Conrad voiced him on the radio show, but not considered. Scheduling conflicts prevented the network from achieving its dream of nabbing John Wayne. The icon insisted they give it to his friend Will Arness after they’d auditioned 26 other actors.
Ken Curtis was able to play several characters. His primary role was Festus Haggen. He also showed up as Buck Taylor, Newly O’Brien, a Texan cowboy murdered after becoming friends with Chester, and other roles.
James Arness was the only actor to star in every single episode of Gunsmoke. That was despite struggling through the final ten seasons due to his severe arthritis. He’d have to film an episode in a single day to take a week-long break afterward.
Milburn Stone almost starred in every episode as well. He missed out on six episodes in 1971 due to a heart attack.
The cast carefully chosen, and so were their names. Chester’s last name Goode in the radio program, but it switched to Proudfoot in the TV show as a nod to one of J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. Doc Adams had no first name for 16 seasons until his actor got the chance to pick one and thought Galen had a nice ring to it.The town of Dodge also saw visits from several A-list stars, often from the same show. They saw Captain Kirk, Scotty, Spock, and Bones from Star Trek. Peter, Cindy, and Jan Brady came by. Other notable guest stars included John Astin from the Addams Family, Angelina Jolie’s father Jon Voight, and Ron Howard.
The Opening Scene
The original opening scene of Gunsmoke shows Marshall Matt Dillon in a gunfight. He then walks through a graveyard and gets up to Boot Hill while delivering memorable narration.
The speech lifted directly from the radio show. The producers wanted to create a strong connection between the two and make sure listeners who recognized and loved the narration would want to sit down and watch.
The opening sequence changed in the 70s due to a push to tone down violence in the media. The original gunfight remains iconic and filmed on the same main street as the Western staple, 1952’s High Noon.
Success on the Radio and TV
Gunsmoke hit TVs in 1952, with its radio program running at the same time. It was the most-watched show on American television from 1957-1961 and had aired over 400 episodes by the time it ended. That record remained untouched until the classic animated show The Simpsons aired its 689th episode on April 29, 2018.
Gunsmoke was so popular that it led to the cancelation of other shows. Ratings started to dip in season 6, so they were considering pulling the plug on it. Instead, they moved it to a different time slot that had been previously occupied by Gilligans Island.
Gunsmoke also spawned a classic catchphrase. Marshall Dillon would tell every villain that entered his town to “get the hell outta’ Dodge.” The phrase was a popular part of contemporary speech in the 60s and 70s.
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A Few Unique Facts
Gunsmoke had a sponsor fit for a cowboy; L&M cigarettes. They kept this relationship for the first seven seasons until cigarette ads banned on TV.
The Gunsmoke radio program made it clear that Miss Kitty was the madam of the local saloon. The TV show didn’t change this fact but was a bit more subtle about it because they wanted to make the show more family-friendly. They toned it down even more in the 70s when the intro was changed. Violence and sex both being pushed out.
Olivia Walton, who played Miss Matt Dillon, only got to have one tiny onscreen kiss in the entirety of the show. It was during the episode Matt’s Love Story.
Actors on the show also came up with some of their characters’ most distinguishing features. Dennis Weaver wanted to differentiate Chester from everyone else in Dodge and decided to fake a limp. It later became a central part of the character.
Characters died in the dangerous town of Dodge, but Garey Busey’s character was the last one. Harve Daley written out by dying of brain cancer in one of the final episodes.
Going back to rewatch and spot errors in classic TV shows today is part of the fun. Gunsmoke succeeded despite several small goofs, including problems with the time it set in and continuity between all the episodes of the long-running series.
Gunsmoke is set in the 1870s-1880s but expresses social, racial, and political ideals that more common in the 1950s-1970s when it was filmed and aired. That’s not the only issue it had sticking to the time it was set.
The gun-toting characters have a low-hanging belt-holster rig for quickdraws. This known as the buschadero style.
This wasn’t invented until the early 20th century. It wouldn’t have shown up in Hollywood or real Texas Rangers. They would have worn their holsters directly on their belts, but only a few Gunsmoke characters do.
Matt is referred to as a US Marshal. Kansas became a state in 1861, 10 years before the series is set. It only had one US District court, one marshal, and a few deputy marshalls. Those deputies would be in Hays, the capital of Kansas at the time. They could enforce federal law but wouldn’t have jurisdiction in a small town like Dodge. It would have only had a town marshall and county sheriff.
Guest characters come into Dodge in stagecoaches. All stage coach lines serving the town closed in 1872 when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived. No one would have still using them by the time the show set.
The doors of the Long Branch saloon were a point of contention for some time. It had swinging doors when it was open and two solid doors that close and lock with a key at the end of the day.
The issue was that the solid doors couldn’t be found during the day and the swinging doors couldn’t be found at night. This was changed in later episodes to make the solid doors visible in later episodes and open flush against the wall.
The signs on Ma Smalley’s boarding house also couldn’t seem to stay in one place. Depending on the episode, it may be on the porch railing, on the wall of the house, or on the roof. This goof was never fixed but was probably only noticed by devoted, eagle-eyed Gunsmoke fans.
How it Ended
One of the strangest parts of Gunsmoke was how it ended. Essentially, it didn’t.
The 20th season featured an episode like any other. To everyone’s surprise, it was the finale. There was no closure for fans or the cast.
There were at least a few follow-up films. They included Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987, The Last Apache in 1990, To The Last Man in 1992, The Long Ride in 1993, and One Man’s Justice in 1994. James Arness had shown up for every episode of the show and continued his devotion by appearing as the Marshal for each movie.
The impact of Gunsmoke on popular culture is unmistakable. It, along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, spawned a decades-long Western renaissance. By the 1950s, there were over 40 Westerns in primetime slots.
Where’s the Cast Now?
James Arness became a worldwide legend as both the Dodge City Marshall and Zeb in the European cult classic How the West Was Won. He died of natural causes at the age of 88 on June 3, 2011.
Dennis Weaver went on to other projects after nine years on Gunsmoke. He was the leading man in Kentucky Joans and appeared in the 1971 film Duel and the show McCloud from 1970-1977. Dennis was a devoted environmentalist before and after he retired from acting. He died at the age of 81 on February 24, 2006
Amanda Blake’s character Miss Kitty was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers. She retired early and became the first to raise cheetahs in captivity. Amanda died of liver failure at the age of 60 on August 16, 1989.
Milburn Stone came from a family of artists; his cousin Madge Blake appeared in almost 100 episodes of Adam West’s Batman and his brother Joe wrote two episodes of Gunsmoke. He was originally a Broadway performer. Although he never appeared in any of the reunion films, he fought to get the show’s royalties before retiring in 1975. Milburn died at the age of 70 on June 12, 1980.
Ken Curtis’ character Festus Haggen replaced Chester Goode and brought plenty of comedy relief. He bonded with James Arness and held the title of deputy for over 11 years. Ken continued with Westerns after the show, including 1983’s The Yellow Rose. He died at the age of 74 on April 28, 1991. There’s even a statue of him in Clovis, California.
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