Fascinating Facts About the Popular Western Series Gunsmoke
Gunsmoke was one of the most popular television shows of its time and became the second longest-running programs in TV history. The primetime gem featured sympathetic characters, thrilling plotlines and star-studded cameos and kicked off the careers of a new wave of actors while highlighting the talents of veterans.
Decades after its original run between 1955 and 1975, the showrunners and actors still have some fascinating stories to tell. These secrets and trivia facts will help you see Gunsmoke in a whole new light.
The Durability of James Arness
Gunsmoke spanned 635 episodes spread out over 20 years. With such a long run, you might expect some or even most of the characters to eventually depart the cast. After all, scheduling conflicts and personal issues have forced the departure of stars from far shorter series.
John Wayne's Association With Gunsmoke
When casting the role of Matt Dillon, showrunners needed to find the perfect cowboy. While there's an urban legend circulating on the internet that they offered the iconic John Wayne the part, there’s no evidence to suggest that actually happened.
Miss Kitty's Real Job
The beautiful Amanda Blake played the role of the red-headed saloon owner, Miss Kitty Russell, on Gunsmoke. She appeared in over 500 episodes of the long-running show. In the Gunsmoke radio series, however, Miss Kitty had a much more scandalous role.
A Surprising Number of On-Screen Smooches
While many fans loved the romantic tension between characters Matt and Kitty and rooted for them to get together, it never ended up happening on screen. This was partially to keep the nature of the story from changing. As actress Amanda Blaked explained about her character, "She'd love Matt to say, 'Kitty, let's buy a hunk o' land and raise some beans and kids.' But then we'd have I Love Lucy Out West."
Remaining Cast Members
With so many episodes to its name, it's hard to keep track of all of the actors who appeared on Gunsmoke. The cast included 10 regulars, seven recurring characters, and a slew of guest stars. The last regular cast member passed away in 2018.
World War II Affected the Shooting Schedule
How did a war that ended 10 years before Gunsmoke ever aired manage to delay it? Before his acting career, Arness was drafted into the U.S. Army in March of 1943 and participated in the Battle of Anzio in Italy on January 22, 1944. Machine-gun fire hit his lower right leg and foot, earning him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
The Origins of a Common Saying
A lot of popular catchphrases come from television and movies, but not many of them stick with future generations. However, use of the phrase "get out of Dodge" to mean running away from wherever you are before something bad happens persists.
It Was Responsible for the Cancellation of a Classic Show
CBS President William Paley had his doubts about Gilligan's Island. He couldn't understand how a show about a group of people stranded on an island could last, but the show about an extended three-hour tour defied all odds and became a rating sensation, so he let it be. That is, until Gunsmoke gave him a reason.
The USS Enterprise Gets in and Out of Dodge
Love them or hate them, crossover cameos have been a staple of television for decades now. When done well, they delight fans of two franchises without distracting too much from the story.
The Surprise Ending
A good series finale can make or break a series. Ideally, it should wrap up existing plots and character arcs while still allowing each character to have an engaging future offscreen. However, Gunsmoke didn’t get that chance.
Death in the West
According to Marshall Trimble, a historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association, character Matt Dillon shot 407 people on Gunsmoke. That includes the television series and the subsequent made-for-TV movies. Some of those bandits survived their wounds, but most were not so lucky.
The Actor Who Almost Played Matt Dillon
When casting a part in a television show, directors often need to search through tens or hundreds of auditions to find the right actor. Gunsmoke was no different, with a whopping 26 final candidates under consideration after the producers ruled out who knows how many more.
The Simpsons Did It
Gunsmoke ran on CBS for two decades, a challenging achievement even in the 60s and 70s when many shows ran for years or decades. Gunsmoke demonstrated an ability to remain relevant that kept it on the air
Protestors Changed Gunsmoke's Opening Credits
For much of Gunsmoke’s run, the show used the same opening from when it first aired in 1955, which included a gun fight. Viewers knew exactly what they were getting into when it started up each week.
Arness' Height Became His Enemy
James Arness was almost as tough as the character he portrayed. Not only did he film every single episode with a leg wound from World War II, but he was also a physically imposing person. He was 6 feet 7 inches tall.
Gun Smoke and Cigarettes
The 1950s and early 1960s were a big time for cigarettes. Tobacco companies posted advertisements near schools and residential areas, and doctors even appeared in ads recommending specific brands of cigarettes.
A Very Brady Gunsmoke
The actors behind the crew of the USS Enterprise weren’t the only ones to show up in Gunsmoke. In addition to multiple Star Trek cameos, the cast of The Brady Bunch also appeared in separate episodes.
And that’s not all when it comes to cameos. Former James Bond actor Charles Bronson portrayed the psychopathic Crego in an early episode called "The Killer" in 1956. He came back to reprise the role a couple of years later.
Gunsmoke Before Gunsmoke
While Gunsmoke today is best remembered as a television show, it actually got its start as a radio program. William Paley, the same man who promoted the show over Gilligan’s Island, was president of CBS back when the corporation dealt in radio shows rather than television. He ordered the creation of a Western television show for adults in contrast to other programs like The Lone Ranger that were aimed at kids.
The Inspiration for Festus Haggen
Ken Curtis played multiple roles during the early days of Gunsmoke. At one point, he played a Texan cattleman who unfortunately perished. In episode 13 of season 8, Curtis played the memorable Festus Haggen. A year later, he became a permanent fixture in the cast list.
One Diverse Actor's Final Role
Many actors tend to stick with one genre, especially when it comes to westerns. However, Glenn Strange's time as bartender Sam Noonan on Gunsmoke was just a small part of his storied acting career. He’d previously taken over the role of Frankenstein's monster for three Universal films in the 1040s following the death of Boris Karloff.
Glenn Strange's Lasting Legacy
Some actors come and go without making any impact. Others are mourned while given a legacy that lasts generations. Glenn Strange's lasting influence on the rest of the cast remains to this day.
Dennis Weaver Thought He Auditioned for Another Part
Actor Dennis Weaver was also extremely confused when he read the script as part of his audition . "I got the opportunity to read for Gunsmoke," Weaver said, "and when I went up there to read, they handed me the script and said read for Chester. And I went out and looked at the part, and it was so inane, I thought, well, nobody could be this silly. I stuck my head back in the room and said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t want me to read for Matt Dillon?’"
Chester Goode's Regret
Once Dennis Weaver came to terms with his role as a humorous sidekick, he quickly landed the part. However, after being asked to read with the actors trying out for the part of Matt Dillon, a new problem came up: the producers found a new problem: Weaver was so charismatic that he seemed like the lead character.
The Secret to Gunsmoke's Success
Gunsmoke was unusual in its ability to survive and thrive not just in the early days of television, but also through the counterculture movements of the 60s and the tense times of the Vietnam War. It truly adapted with the times.
Doc Din’t Have a Name
Doc Adams, played by Milburn Stone, had a long and storied history on Gunsmoke. He had an academic background in Philadelphia, worked as a doctor for riverboat gamblers and was an acquaintance of Mark Twain's.
Why Miss Kitty Wasn't in the Last Season
Amanda Blake began her acting career at a young age and signed a deal with MGM while she was still a teenager. When she heard the Gunsmoke radio show was turning into a pilot, knew she wanted to have the part of Miss Kitty Russel.
While Gunsmoke was a major hit with viewers, it also won plenty of praise from critics as well. Given the talented performances of actors ranging from Hank Miller to Burt Reynolds and the same writing that made the radio show famous, it’s no surprise that it did so well.
Polly Bond Declined the Part of Kitty
Amanda Blake was not the producer's first choice for Miss Kitty. Actress Polly (Ellis) Bond, who was married to famous actor Tommy Bond of The Little Rascals fame, was initially tapped for the role. What made her turn it down?
The Failed Gunsmoke Spinoff
Popular films and television shows receive spinoffs all of the time. Some characters only meant to appear once or twice become so popular that fans demand more. After 20 years of Gunsmoke, only one spinoff ever arrived, and it was a resounding failure.