Gunsmoke

The Untold Truth Of Gunsmoke

Previously the record-holder of the longest-running TV series of all time — before it was beaten by the likes of “Law & Order” – the classic TV Western “Gunsmoke” ruled the airwaves alongside shows like “Bonanza” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” Set in the Old West town of Dodge City, Kansas, “Gunsmoke” introduced James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon. The tough-as-nails lawman was tasked with keeping the peace in the frontier town, alongside bar owner Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), local physician ‘Doc’ Adams (Milburn Stone), and country boy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver).

Based on a popular radio drama, “Gunsmoke” debuted in 1955 and continued its on-air adventures for 20 incredible years. One of the most beloved TV shows of its day, “Gunsmoke” is practically synonymous with the television Western, setting the bar for the genre, and continuing to influence shows to this day. It’s also one of the most well-chronicled shows in TV history, too, and there are plenty of stories from behind the scenes that have surfaced over the years that audiences might not know. So saddle up, as we’re taking a ride into the untold truth of “Gunsmoke.”

John Wayne helped James Arness get the role of Marshal Matt Dillon

By the early 1950s, Westerns were the biggest movies on the big screen, and the biggest actor in them was the Duke, John Wayne. Most “Gunsmoke” fans may know that Wayne was the first choice for the role of Marshal Dillon. What some may not know, however, is that it was Wayne who helped eventual series star James Arness snag the coveted leading part.

“I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before ‘Gunsmoke’ came along,” Arness said in a 2006 interview. “I had been in about four pictures for his company with him.” According to Arness, the studio was gunning hard for Wayne, but he flatly declined the offer, uninterested in leaving the big screen for a TV role. He did give the studio Arness’ name, though, apparently telling them “I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.”

It’s a good thing Wayne turned down the role, though, and not just for Arness’ sake. During the show’s incredible 20-year run, Wayne went on to star in some of his best films, including “The Searchers,” “The Longest Day,” and “True Grit.”

Dillon was the hardest role to cast

Long before Batman became the role every actor in Hollywood wanted to play, it was Matt Dillon that practically every actor in town was fighting over. One of the first to push hard for the role was William Conrad, who had voiced the character on the radio drama version of “Gunsmoke.” Unfortunately, he was rejected because while he could play the part with his voice, his physical stature didn’t quite match what they were looking for on television.

Other actors who auditioned included Raymond Burr, who series creator Charles Marquis Warren was similarly unimpressed with. “When [Burr] stood up, his chair stood up with him,” the director reportedly said of the eventual “Perry Mason” star. After a long and exhausting search though, they zeroed in on James Arness thanks to the suggestions of John Wayne. Yet the star almost didn’t accept the offer.

In a 2002 interview with the Archive of American Television, Arness said he was warned that the show could hurt his blossoming movie career. The actor recalled how it was the director Edward Ludwig who cautioned him saying, “If you get stuck in a television series like a Western thing, and it goes a couple of seasons and then dies … You’ll be in bad trouble in the movies.” Thankfully, reason prevailed and the role of Matt Dillon made Arness a legend.

Polly Bond turned down the role of Miss Kitty

John Wayne wasn’t the only actor to turn down a leading role in “Gunsmoke.” And if fate had turned another way, starring opposite James Arness would have been someone very different than Amanda Blake — who played saloon owner Miss Kitty Russell. But while Wayne probably wasn’t lamenting passing on the role of Marshal Dillon, the actress who said no to Miss Kitty may have had some regrets. Because her career never did amount to much, while “Gunsmoke” ran for an astonishing two decades, making stars out of most of its lesser-known cast members.

That actress is Polly Bond, who only ever appeared on screen twice in her lifetime: once as an unnamed, uncredited background character in the 1946 Western “Abilene Town,” and in the 1951 Jackie Coogan film, “Varieties on Parade.” Strangely enough, though, the reason she said no to the part was because she was offered too much money. As mind-boggling as that might seem, there is some logic to her decision, at least when you consider the social norms of the day. When the role was first offered, Polly Bond was married to actor Tommy Bond — Butch on “The Little Rascals” — and the stigma of her husband making less money than she did was apparently too much for her to accept.

The series featured a number of actors before they were famous

Debuting in the fall of 1955, and closing out its two decades on the air in 1975, “Gunsmoke” aired more than 600 episodes. Each one required guest-starring roles — those who’d arrive in Dodge City in search of help, or dastardly villains looking to stir up trouble — and that meant scores of actors passed through the show’s saloon doors over the years. This included a number of major Hollywood icons before they were big stars.

Not long before he appeared in the Steven Spielberg classic “Jaws,” Richard Dreyfuss showed up in the 1973 episode “This Golden Land” playing Gearshon Gorofsky, the son of a Jewish immigrant whose brother is killed in an attack by bigoted townsfolk. Sam Elliott, a man who went on to make a living in Westerns, appeared in a 1972 installment, and Jodie Foster showed up as a child actor in three episodes.

Of course, the most famous guest star to appear in “Gunsmoke” before they struck it big was Harrison Ford, who appeared in two episodes — one in 1972 and the other in 1973. Other recognizable names who guested on the series include future director Ron Howard, and superstars Kurt Russell, Dennis Hopper, Nick Nolte, and Adam West.

More Star Trek connections than you’d ever suspect

“Gunsmoke” and the original “Star Trek” both aired in the 1960s, but you might be surprised at just how many actors crossed between the two shows. Fans may know that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and DeForest Kelley all showed up on “Gunsmoke,” but it goes far beyond just those four major players, and even extends beyond actors from the original “Star Trek” series.

Other notable actors to appear on both shows include Arlene Martel (Spock’s wife T’Pring), Mark Lenard (who played Spock’s father Sarek across several seasons and films), Grace Lee Whitney (who played Yoeman Rand), Ricardo Montalban (the villainous Khan) and Michael Ansara (Kang).

That’s not where it ends, though. Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat in “Deep Space Nine”) was also in a 1974 episode of “Gunsmoke,” and his castmate Salome Jens (who played the Changeling leader) appeared in two “Gunsmoke” stories, too. We could rattle off dozens more, but the most interesting connection might be composer Jerry Goldsmith, who scored the first “Star Trek” film and is responsible for one of the franchise’s most iconic themes, and who also conducted music for two episodes of the classic western.

Fan letters made a difference to the cast of Gunsmoke

Fan-driven campaigns have helped keep shows alive or even spurred studios into revivals. But back in the ’50s and ’60s, such influence from fans was rare. Nevertheless, “Gunsmoke” was one famous example of a passionate fanbase making their voices heard and having an impact on the making of the series as well as on the actors who starred in it.

One noteworthy example would be letters received by actor Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams. Through a number of fan letters from actual doctors who watched the show, Stone learned that much of the science and medicine he was spouting in the series didn’t really make a lot of sense. As a result, the actor took it upon himself to do his own research to make sure what he was saying was correct.

Fan letters also proved life-changing for actress Amanda Blake when she left the series and her career stalled. “There was a fan letter from a little girl who’d seen a ‘Gunsmoke’ episode on cable,” she said according to the book “The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western.” “She told me how much she liked Miss Kitty and closed by saying she prayed that God would bless me. It was so moving and so touching that I found new strength to keep going.”

Dennis Weaver came up with much of Chester’s character

Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty, and Doc Adams were joined by several other iconic characters, including Chester Goode, played by actor Dennis Weaver. Oddly enough, despite being played by an accomplished dramatic actor, producers actually wanted Weaver to play the role of comic relief, something he didn’t quite understand at first. During an interview with the Archive of American Television, Weaver talked about how after a more serious audition he was told that the part was supposed to be humorous. That’s when he had a lightbulb moment.

“I remembered in the University of Oklahoma, there was a kid … he had such a thick accent you could hardly understand him,” Weaver revealed. “And I used to imitate him at parties, and in New York, I used to get a lot of laughs imitating him, with that accent.” Remembering back to those early days, Weaver decided to channel his old funny school chum once more. “I said, whoah, whoah, I think I know what you mean, will you give me another chance?” Weaver tried again, and the character of Chester was born. But that wasn’t the end of Weaver’s input, because Chester’s signature limp was also an invention of the actor and one he regretted after he received letters from fans who expressed concern for his health.

The series had to shoot around James Arness’ wartime injuries

Chester wasn’t the only character in “Gunsmoke” to have a noticeable hobble. So too did star James Arness at times, but this wasn’t a conscious choice the actor made to give his character an added sense of realism like his co-star. Arness was a veteran who’d returned from World War II with injuries that often left him struggling to walk. This led to many challenges not just in his private life, but on the set of “Gunsmoke,” too.

As chronicled by Outsider, production on the series often hit a snag in episodes that required Marshal Dillon to be on his feet for long periods or — worse yet — to walk long distances. To help with Arness’ unique medical needs, they’d often schedule such scenes to be filmed earlier in the day, in an effort to allow him leeway with multiple on-set breaks in between “action” and “cut.” Mounting horses, too, proved particularly challenging, especially as the series wore on and Arness got older — something that was only a problem for “Gunsmoke” because of its extended 20-season run.

Gunsmoke popularized the term ‘get out of dodge’

There are a number of phrases associated with the Wild West that have entered the common parlance, whether it’s “circle the wagons” or “that dog won’t hunt.” But one iconic phrase used to this day whenever someone is eager to get out of a rough area was popularized thanks to “Gunsmoke.” Because when someone wants to “get out of Dodge” — as Maryland rock outfit Clutch says in their 2018 single “Gimme the Keys” — they probably first heard it on the hit Western series, even though it predates the 1955 television show.

Of course, the real origin of the phrase comes from the real-life Dodge City, Kansas, and is most likely in reference to Wyatt Earp’s famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But thanks to the wildly popular “Gunsmoke,” millions upon millions of people were tuning in every week to a different kind of adventure in Dodge, and thus the phrase began to enter pop culture. As strange as it might seem, though, Outsider concludes that the phrase actually doesn’t refer to leaving a troubled region, but was probably meant as a warning to would-be outlaws entering the city, because it was protected by dedicated lawmen like Earp … or in this case, Matt Dillon.

It had its own comics in the U.S. and the U.K.

These days it’s almost expected that if an action-oriented TV show or movie is a big hit with audiences, it will find its way to the pages of a licensed comic book. This has been true for decades, with everything from “Pacific Rim” to “24” receiving comic book adaptations, but in the 1950s it was far less common. Dell Comics, however, was having success with adaptations of Westerns like “Gene Autry Comics” and sitcoms like “I Love Lucy,”  and they eventually turned to “Gunsmoke.”

First published as part of their “Dell Comics” series, it became its own title after five issues and would run for four years. But that wasn’t the only comic book that was based on the hit TV series. In those days comic books weren’t distributed globally, so in the U.K. “Gunsmoke” received a separate title — this time as a comic strip under the name “Gun Law.” It’s mostly a footnote in TV and comic book history today, but it began running in newspapers in 1957, around the same time Dell began publishing their own comics stateside. Printed in the paper daily, its run was actually far longer than Dell’s, and perhaps surprisingly even outlasted the TV series, ending in 1978.

It got Gilligan’s Island cancelled

In the middle of the epic 20-year run of “Gunsmoke,” another more light-hearted TV series began airing on the same network. Set on a deserted tropical island, “Gilligan’s Island” followed the hapless adventures of a shipwrecked crew led by the titular goofball Gilligan (Bob Denver) and the surly Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.). “Gilligan’s Island” debuted even higher in the ratings than “Gunsmoke,” but after it was canceled after its third season, the Western began rocketing up the charts. The success of “Gunsmoke” almost didn’t happen, however, and one of the stars of “Gilligan’s Island,” claims it was “Gunsmoke” that nearly got the axe instead.

In 2013, actress Dawn Wells — who played farm girl Mary Anne on “Gilligan’s Island” — spoke with Esquire and revealed that the network had wanted to keep their show instead. “What happened was ‘Gunsmoke’ was canceled and we were [going to be] moved into their time slot,” she revealed. “Mrs. Paley — the wife of the board chairman — had been on vacation when ‘Gunsmoke’ was canceled, and when she got home, she said, ‘You can’t cancel ‘Gunsmoke.’ It’s my favorite show.’ So they canceled us.”

Milburn Stone almost didn’t accept the role of Doc Adams

The character of Doc Adams may have spouted some medical nonsense early on, but thanks to some fan letters and actor Milburn Stone’s dedication to the role, that was promptly addressed. Who knows what might have happened if Adams had been played by another actor though? That was almost the case, however, because Stone came very close to refusing the part when it was first offered to him. It all stems from an ongoing feud with series director and writer Charles Marquis Warren.

“I had done a picture in Brackettville, Texas with Charles Marquis Warren, and I must say he and I had a terrible experience,” Stone told Kansas History. “We didn’t get along at all. So when the television version of ‘Gunsmoke’ came along, he’s got a three-way ticket – writer, producer, and director. They wanted me to test, and I said ‘No way. There’s no stage big enough to hold Charles Marquis Warren and me.”

But even after being cajoled into the show, Stone made certain it was worth his while, demanding residuals in perpetuity. “I see dead friends of mine, working on television every night, and their families are starving … It became a moral issue with me, a matter of principle.” In the end, the studio caved, and the rest is history.

Milburn Stone hated costar James Arness initially

There have been many documented cases of actors who flat out refused to work together, but sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than saying no. Sometimes, an actor takes a gig and just doesn’t get along with their co-star, and that’s exactly the case with Milburn Stone, who hated series star James Arness, at least at first.

“I spent the first three years hating Jim,” Stone said in an interview with TV Guide. “I couldn’t stand him professionally or his attitude. He’d be late or wouldn’t show up – [and he would] never apologize. And once he was there he’d clown around. I told him we were diametrically opposed and I felt he did not belong in the business at all.” Eventually, Stone had enough of Arness’ antics on-set and gave an ultimatum: “I said, ‘I’ve read my contract and there’s nothing in it that says I have to put diapers on you or wait for you. And if you ever show up late again, buddy, you’ll have two things to explain — not only where you were, but where I went!'”

So what turned Stone around? It was Arness’ humility when confronted. “When I was through, he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You’re absolutely right,'” Stone explained. “From that moment on, I begun to love that guy. He’s a great, big wonderful cub bear.”

 

 

 

 

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