Gunsmoke is one of the longest-running shows in the history of television. With beloved and quirky characters, tons of action and lots of laughs, it’s not hard to see why it stuck around for so long.
And, even today, reruns of the series continue to pop up everywhere. Here are some things that you may not know about the making of the show and the people involved in it.
The Leading Man
Matt Dillon, series protagonist, is famously portrayed by James Arness. The U.S Marshal works hard to keep criminals at bay on the streets of small-town Kansas in the 1870s.
The fictional city of Dodge was full of shenanigans and interesting characters. There was always something happening to pull viewers into the world of the show, relieving them of the stress of their own.
Amanda Blake played the fiery-haired saloon owner, Kitty Russell. And those who watched the show know that her hair is far from the only fiery thing about her. But Blake wasn’t the first actress who was up for the saucy saloon proprietress. Originally, the show’s creators offered the role to Polly Bond. Fortunately for Blake, Bond declined the role, and it was then all up to her to bring Kitty to life – and she did just that.
But those who may have been expecting things to heat up on screen between Kitty and the leading man were destined to wait a long time. In fact, even though it may have been implied that the saloon owner was secretly working a job that was a little more, well, secret, they never actually showed anything happening between them, no matter how badly fans may have wanted it to happen.
Before James Arness became known for his role in 'Gunsmoke', he was playing a very different kind of role – a soldier in the United States military during World War II. His vision for his future was to become a fighter pilot, but something would hold him back. He did, however, become a rifleman. And he would find himself deployed to fight in the Battle of Anzio.
During his time at war, Arness wounded his leg pretty severely, and was evacuated home for medical care. But the wounds would haunt him throughout his entire life, thanks to chronic pain in his right leg as a result of the injury.
Where Did Kitty Go?
When season 20 of the show began, there was an important character missing, and questions to be answered. The saloon keeper was nowhere to be found. But where had she gone, and why?
Rather than being written off of the show, Amanda Blake’s character was simply left entirely out of the season following her last performance. Kitty was tired of seeing Dillon nearly killed on a regular basis, which was one of the reasons that she left. But Blake herself didn’t want to return to the show after her friend and co-star, Glenn Strange, passed away. Strange was 74 when he lost his battle with lung cancer.
A Disappointing Ending
Fans of 'Gunsmoke' were seriously invested in the show. After all, it was on the air for two whole decades, and so many people grew up watching it and continued to watch into adulthood. So, most were pretty upset when the show ended the way it did.
In fact, there wasn’t even a wrap-up show aired as the final first-run episode. Which means that after 20 years on the air, rather than tying up any loose ends and giving fans closure, they just suddenly stopped playing new episodes. The last one ever aired was called “The Sharecropper,” and played in 1975.
Full of Regrets
Chester Goode was the first character cast during the first year of 'Gunsmoke’s' production. Goode is played by Dennis Weaver, and is known for his heavy accent and noticeable limp. The accent was an afterthought during the audition process, after Weaver’s first go-round, when he was told that they wish he would’ve brought “more humor to the role.”
Weaver said he thought back to school and this boy in his class that was made fun of for his heavy southern accent. He added the accent to his line delivery the second time around – along with the famous limp – and producers were on the floor laughing. Little did he know he would later end up adding the limp. Afterwards, he was given the role and asked to read with everyone who auditioned for Matt Dillon and Doc until those were filled, too.
Roger Ewing is probably most well-remembered for playing deputy marshal Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood, AKA, “Thad,” on the show. He stuck around for two seasons before the show was temporarily cancelled in 1967. When it came back on the air – Thad was nowhere to be found.
Ewing decided to try and stay off screen as much as possible after his days on 'Gunsmoke'. Being an introverted person, he wasn’t thrilled about living life as a celebrity. He did appear in a couple of films and shows after his time as Thad, but that was the end of his career in the industry.
Casting Matt Dillon
Before James Arness landed the leading role of Marshal Matt Dillon, several (dozen) other actors were up for the part. Among the others who almost played the show’s protagonist were Raymond Burr and William Conrad. Conrad was considered first since it was him who voiced Dillon’s role on the original 'Gunsmoke' radio program.
Unfortunately for the two men, producers believed them both to be too big boned to play the part of the marshal. They also reportedly asked John Wayne to take on the role, but he had little interest in performing on television, rather than continue to work on film. But guess who John Wayne recommended for the role, instead? You guessed it: his buddy, James Arness. Of course, that doesn’t mean Arness jumped on it, either. It took a little convincing from both sides, and it definitely wasn’t easy for producers to cast the lead role in the show.
After producers told Dennis Weaver to “bring the funny” into his role as Chester, he decided to kick things up a notch. He threw in a heavy country accent – and limp. But he didn’t exactly realize that by doing these things, he’d have to keep them up for 20 years.
As far as his character was concerned, Chester had gotten the limp after an injury he received fighting in the Civil War. Although some say that they believed he created the limp due to his height (six-foot-two,) after he was told executives wanted him to appear much shorter than the leading man, who stood six-foot-seven. But according to Weaver, it was simply to make his character a little bit funnier – and it seemed to work for him!
We’ve gone over the fact that Polly Bond was offered the role of Kitty before it was filled, but we didn’t exactly reveal why she turned it down. Have you ever heard of anyone turning down a job because they were offered too much money? Yeah, neither have we, but that’s exactly what happened in this scenario.
At the time she was offered the role, Polly was married to fellow actor Tommy Bond, who played Butch on 'The Little Rascals'. Had she accepted the role of Kitty, she would have been the breadwinner in the marriage, which she apparently had no desire to do. The two hadn’t been married for very long and she thought it might make things a bit strenuous between them. Perhaps her not taking the role contributed to their happy, 54-year-long partnership.
When a show is on the air for 20 years, it’s bound to leave its mark on the world. In the case of 'Gunsmoke', this happened in several ways, one of which is through the show’s catchphrases. “You ain’t never going to find out, Curly,” is perhaps one of the best well-known.
Another phrase you may remember from the show is, of course, “get out of Dodge.” In fact, it’s actually been added to the online slang terminology site, Urban Dictionary, since it’s heard so often. On the show, Dillon says it to criminals who he wants out of his city. But these days, people say it to basically mean to leave somewhere in the blink of an eye.
Festus Haggen is Matt Dillon’s second deputy, and one of the most beloved characters on the show. Festus brings a unique personality (and vocabulary) to the scenes he is a part of. The role is played by the late singer and actor, Ken Curtis. Curtis grew up on a ranch in Colorado and played quarterback on his high school football team. After college, he started his career in entertainment by signing on as a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey Band.
Although Curtis acted in several films, including a series of musical westerns, over the years, he was most well-known for his time on 'Gunsmoke'. Marshall Matt Dillon may have had five deputies over the course of his career in Dodge, but Festus was certainly the most memorable.
Gunsmoke Killed Gilligan’s Island
In 1967, 'Gunsmoke' was nearly cancelled, and its spot given to someone else. But when President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly told CBS he was a fan, they had to reevaluate. Around this time, 'Gilligan’s Island' was enjoying its prime-time slot on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. Unfortunately for fans of that show, 'Gunsmoke' needed somewhere else to go – and just like that, it replaced Gilligan and his crew.
Network executives weren’t very sure about the move when it first happened. In fact, they thought they were taking a huge risk and that ratings could have gone either way. Luckily, it worked like a charm, and 'Gunsmoke’s' ratings skyrocketed. It became the 4th most watched show in the U.S.
Committed to the Role
If you have a job for two decades, you’re bound to miss at least a few workdays over the years. Things happen. People get sick, there are family emergencies, weather issues, etc. But James Arness was wholly committed to his role as Matt Dillon. In 20 years of filming, he is the only actor to appear in each and every episode of the show.
It is possible that, because he was the star of the show, producers and the rest of the cast worked around his sick days. But, it’s also possible that he simply pushed through and showed up no matter what the circumstances were. In any case, James Arness didn’t miss out on a single 'Gunsmoke' episode. And, considering the fact that he was dealing with some severe health issues through nearly half of it, makes it that much more impressive.
Turning to Art
Buck Taylor is most well-known for his eight-year stint as Newly O’Brien. But the actor is also a multi-talented man. Before he even went into acting, Taylor was pursuing a path as an Olympic gymnast. At the same time, he was studying art at the University of Southern California. Then, he landed his breakthrough role and his entire life changed. Plus, the show wouldn’t be quite the same without him.
Although Taylor has continued to act straight into the 2000’s, appearing in 2004’s 'Tombstone', he’s shifted his focus back to art these days. The 76-year old spends his time working on his paintings, which he sells on his website, bucktaylor.com. His work can also be seen displayed in several places throughout Texas.
(Not) Letting Go
After you’ve become so invested in playing a character over the span of several decades, it can’t be easy to just walk away from. After all, James Arness was Matt Dillon for 20 years. So when the time came to film the follow-up films, of course he was all in. He wasn’t the only one of the original cast members who was excited about the reunions, either.
Buck Taylor and Amanda Blake both appeared with Arness in the made-for-television film, 'Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge', alongside Arness. The film first aired twelve years after the show’s 1975 cancellation. Unfortunately, one cast member, Milburn Stone, wouldn’t be around to reunite with the rest of them, as he passed away several years before it’s conception.
The reunion films weren’t the only productions made to try and bring the world of Dodge back to life. In 1974, a year before the original series’ ultimate cancellation, a spinoff show called 'Dirty Sally' was released. It follows a junk collector from Dodge (Jeanette Nolan) who heads west to California in search of gold.
In the series, Nolan plays the title role, an older woman who chews tobacco and meddles in the lives of everyone she encounters on her way west. The show was only on the air for a single season, though Nolan received an Emmy nomination for her work on it. The final episode aired in April of ’74, several months before 'Gunsmoke' was cancelled.
Difficulties on Set
James Arness was no doubt one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood for his 20 years in the industry. He made every episode and did several of his own stunts, which required all kinds of prep work and training. But in the later years of filming, he was dealing with severe arthritis, which made working quite hard on him a lot of the time.
The entire second decade the show was on the air, Arness was suffering from arthritis. It was apparently so bad at times that producers tried to get all of his scenes for an episode shot in one day. That way, the actor had plenty of recovery time before the next time they needed him.
For nearly the entirety of the show, the opening credits remained the same. Each week, the show opened with a gunfight scene between the leading Marshall and another man. 'True West' magazine revealed that the man on the other side of the fight with James Arness happened to be fast draw expert, Arvo Ojala.
The gun pro first moved to Hollywood early on in the 1950s, during the Golden Age. He opened up a leather shop in town where he patented and sold the first fast-draw holster. He trained a lot of western stars how to utilize them for scenes in major hits. Aside from Arness, Ojalla taught James Garner, Paul Newman, Kevin Kline, and Robert Culp to shoot, among several others.
Emmy Award Winning
You don’t make it for 20 years as one of the most popular shows on television without at least winning or being nominated for a few Emmys. And of course, 'Gunsmoke' was no exception. The show and its cast and crew garnered 15 nominations over the years, and won five, including Best Dramatic Series in 1958.
In 1959, Dennis Weaver won the Primetime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series. And nearly a decade later, in 1968, Milburn Stone received the same honor.
The Radio Show
Gunsmoke’s origins began in the form of a radio show that aired from 1952-1961. During the original years, William Conrad played Matt Dillon. And, when it was time to cast the role on the television show, producers discussed simply having him transfer from radio to on-screen. But rumor has it they decided against it, partly because they imagined the marshal being a bit less heavy.
Like many stars of his time, Conrad was a World War II veteran who turned to the entertainment industry after his time serving with the military. He appeared in several films and television shows, including 'Cannon' on CBS, in which he starred in 1976. Although Conrad passed away in 1994, he was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame a few years after his passing, due in large part to his work as Marshal Matt Dillon.
While most that have achieved the number one spot on the Nielsen ratings have done so by being aired on weeknight primetime television, 'Gunsmoke' did something even more impressive. The show aired on Saturday nights, which isn’t one of the best nights for TV, and it was still able to reach the top spot.
The only other show to do that in the history of TV is 'All in the Family'. Both shows reached number one despite their weekend slot, and both were able to hold the number one rating for several years in a row. 'Gunsmoke' was the top-rated show from 1958-1961.
The Show’s Evolution
You don’t get to stay on the air for two decades in a row by playing outdated scenarios on dead technology. Rather than roll over for the times, 'Gunsmoke' continued to evolve, changing along with what audiences were looking for. Starting from making the switch from radio to TV to changing the show’s introduction to appease the time’s politics, creators tried to keep up with the way of the world as much as possible.
When color television became a reality, the show made the evolution along with it. It was originally a 30-minute long show when it was first on TV, but when it changed to color, it also added length and became an hour-long. The show’s creator, Charles Marquis Warren, wanted to make sure that 'Gunsmoke' stayed ahead of the times so as not to become irrelevant as things shifted.
A Face for The Ages
If there was one person on the show that a person from each generation in every household would recognize, it’s Burt Reynolds. Reynolds played Quint Asper, and got his start on the series when it was still being shown in black and white.
The actor then went on to create quite an impressive career for himself in Hollywood. After his time on the show, he got into acting on the silver screen. He’s starred in several major motion pictures over the course of many decades, including his breakout role in 'Deliverance'. He’s also authored a few books in which he discusses his acting, and life in general, such as his 2015 title, 'But Enough About Me: A Memoir'.
John Wayne’s Friend
John Wayne, legendary Western star, was basically begged to take on the role of Marshal Matt Dillon. Producers really wanted him to play the part, and the creator had envisioned him playing it, but Wayne was too successful in film to have any desire to switch over to TV. And, it’s actually thanks to him that James Arness was introduced to the role. Apparently, the two were friends, and Wayne recommended him to the show executives.
Of course, no one is absolutely sure if the stories are true or not, although one quick search through Google will prove just how many publications are discussing it. The stories also note that hesitant Arness was to take on the role in the first place. In one interview it reveals that someone close to him in the industry told him that if he got stuck in a series, he’d be “used goods.” However, Wayne reportedly convinced him to go for it.
There were several famous guest stars to appear on the show throughout the years. But some of those stars wouldn’t really become well-known until after their time on 'Gunsmoke'. Take for instance future 'Star Trek' leading man, William Shatner. He wasn’t the only one from that particular show, either. James Doohan (Scotty) and DeForest Kelley (Dee) appeared in one episode with their future cast-mate and captain.
'Beverly Hillbilly’s' star Buddy Ebsen made an appearance on the show over the span of a decade, starting in 1960 and for the last time in 1971. Bette Davis, Richard Dreyfuss, and Alan Hale Jr (Skipper) all popped up in different episodes during the series as well.
Milburn Stone was the man behind the face of Dr. G. “Doc” Adams on the show. Stone grew up in Burrton, Kansas, which is a small town just like Dodge, so he felt right at home playing the role of Doc. Everyone in the fictional town on the series simply referred to him by his nickname, which left fans wondering if he even had a first name at all.
For the first 16 seasons, the world just accepted him as Doc. But finally, before season 17, creators decided to give the doctor a first name. But, since at that point, Stone was the person who best knew Doc, the decision was left to him. He went with the name Dr. Galen Adams – although of course he’ll still always be Doc.
A Future Indiana Jones
Aside from the future cast members of the ever-popular 'Star Trek', there were several other up-and-coming superstars to grace the sets of the show. A (very) young Jodie Foster made an appearance in episode 19 of season 17, which aired in 1972. And she wasn’t the only one, either. That same year, Harrison Ford would pop up in his first episode of the series.
Ford appears in the episode titled “The Sodbusters,” in which he plays the role of an outlaw named “Print.” Although his character gets shot – twice – he returns the following season. But when he comes back, the marshal is out of town and it’s up to Miss Kitty to handle him and his gang.
Meet the Pre-Brady Bunch
Of the many individuals who were either famous or later became famous because of their roles on the show, a few future 'Brady Bunch' cast members were among them. In fact, three of the main cast members appeared in at least one episode of the series. The youngest Brady, played by Susan Olsen, was one of them.
Olsen first made an appearance on 'Gunsmoke' in a 1968 episode titled “Abelia.” On the show, Festus must nurse her character, Marianne, back to health after she’s bitten by a rattlesnake. Marianne returns to the show the following season for another episode as well. The same year that Olsen first appeared on the show, her fellow 'Brady Bunch' cast member, Christopher Knight, popped up in an episode, too.
The future film star played a role that was particularly special to fans. It wasn’t a huge role, but it was in season 20, episode 22 – just two episodes prior to the final one that would air. In the third-to-last taping, he plays Harvey Daley, a character who dies after he decided to ride a wild horse.
Daley’s death was the final one in the series, and many say he was the last person killed on the show. Although he wasn’t shot or murdered by an outlaw, he was killed from being thrown off a horse and kicked in the head, which results in serious head injuries.
'Gunsmoke' is by far one of the longest running shows in television history. In fact, if you Google “longest running TV shows,” you’ll find that it pops up at the top of almost every list. It actually held the record for having the most episodes of any show – until it was recently beat out.
'The Simpsons' is still creating new episodes today, and they currently have an impressive 673, while the western favorite stopped at 635. In February of 2019, Fox renewed the show for another two seasons, which will bring their total number of episodes to 713. 'Gunsmoke' is still in second place on the “longest running shows” lists.
Over the two decades that the show was on the air, it only ever held two time slots. While shows often jump around, and/or are shifted around, 'Gunsmoke', as a television show, more or less remained in the same place for fans to enjoy.
When it was first released, it aired on Saturday evenings from 7:30-8:00 pm, a schedule which it held throughout the first six seasons. Then, in 1967 is when it was moved to Monday nights, where it remained for the rest of the show’s running. After it moved to Mondays, it played at 8:00, and, thanks to popular demand, ran for 60 minutes, instead of the initial 30.
The Stunt Double
Although James Arness did a large number of his own stunts throughout the years, once his arthritis really took hold, it became harder for him to do so. A stunt double, Ben “Big Ben” Bates, was hired in 1972 to do the more dangerous stunts.
Bates landed the gig as Arness’ stunt double for his impressive horseback riding abilities, first and foremost. Everyone was so thrilled with his work that he was invited back to perform the stunts in all of the follow-up films, as well. In the 1982 sci-fi hit, 'Swamp Thing', Bates plays the evil creature that fights Swamp Thing.
Amanda Blake Loved Animals
Miss Kitty was aptly named, considering how much the actress who played her loved and supported animals – even after she left this earth. And, if you ever saw her in a fur coat, you can bet that it was fake.
Blake often donated and worked to support animal rights and welfare organizations, many of them in Arizona, where she lived before her death. After her passing, she left the rest of her money (around $400,000) to PAWS, an organization owned by a friend of hers that works to rescue and care for unwanted animals that have been working in the entertainment industry. In 1997, they opened the Amanda Blake Memorial Wildlife Refuge and Museum in California in her honor.
Dennis Weaver’s Departure
Weaver played his role as Chester Goode for over half of the show’s existence. But in 1964, he was offered a starring part in his own show, which he accepted.
'Kentucky Jones' is a dramedy about a horse trainer/veterinarian who adopts a child from China. It was only on the air for 26 weeks before it was ultimately cancelled. He then went on to star in the title role on NBC’s police drama, 'McCloud'.
Follow Up Films
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there were several 'Gunsmoke' films made to continue the world of Dodge. Among them were 1992’s 'To the Last Man', and 1993’s 'The Long Ride'.
'The Last Apache' was released (on television) in 1990. In it, James learns that he fathered a daughter by a woman he met a very long time ago. The woman, whose name is Mike, tells him that their daughter, Beth, has been kidnapped, and Dillon of course goes to find and rescue her.
James Arness had a famous older brother, one who actually happened to work with him on 'Gunsmoke' from behind-the-scenes.
James and his brother, Peter Graves, grew up together in Minneapolis. The 'Mission Impossible' star also directed a 1955 episode of the show. Both James and Peter passed away within around the same year of each other in 2010 and 2011.
Outside of the Box
When you play the same role for 20 years, it can be hard to break away from that image. But that doesn’t mean Arness didn’t take on some additional roles outside of the show, too.
In the early 1950s, the actor appeared in two sci-fi films; 'The Thing From Another World' and 'Them!'. In the first film, he is made up to appear as “The Thing,” a role in which he appears completely different than the way his 'Gunsmoke' fans are used to seeing him.
The Arness Family
James’ son Rolf was born three years before the first episode of 'Gunsmoke' ever aired, and he had a sister named Jenny that was a few years older than him. He also adopted his wife (at the time) Virginia’s son, Craig, who eventually went on to become a successful photographer for National Geographic.
Unfortunately, things between him and Virginia weren’t exactly great, and the two wound up filing for divorce. The couple ultimately split in 1963, in the middle of season 9 of the show. Things got even harder for James about 12 years later, when Jenny took her own life just a few years after the series ended.
Although most of the cast members of 'Gunsmoke' have passed away, they will forever live on in the 20 years’ worth of episodes that they helped bring to life.
They will also live on in the hearts of their fans, many of whom grew up along with the characters in Dodge. The only regular cast member of the show who is still alive these days is actor and artist Buck Taylor.