It was a 20-year shoot-out between wrong and right that began in 1955 and spanned three wildly diverse decades. There were 30 TV Westerns when the show expanded from 30 minutes to an hour in 1961, but when it was all over, on Sept. 1, 1975, Gunsmoke was the last one left standing. Naturally, it went tall and proud: Gunsmoke, starring 6’6” James Arness as the immensely good and unwaveringly fallible Marshal Matt Dillon, was the longest-running prime-time dramatic series the country had ever seen — and by golly, son, it still is.
For four of its years, the CBS series was the nation’s No. 1 TV show; all told, it made the top 10 for 12 years. Like its hero, it was disarmingly simple: There was this town, Dodge City, out there on the Kansas plains in the year 1873, and Marshal Dillon was charged with maintaining law and order in it. He did, too, but the job was so tough and unpredictable that you never could be sure he’d succeed. Its regulars kept you off balance the way odd relatives do: Look, here’s grumpy, all-healing Doc (Milburn Stone), who drinks a bit; here comes Matt’s deputy, Chester (Dennis Weaver), gimpy, perplexed, heroic when you least expect; behind him there’s shiftless-looking Festus (Ken Curtis), whom you’d trust with your life; and look — what will the neighbors think? — it’s Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake)! A sly, buxom lady of palpable, ill-defined experience, she runs the saloon, is Matt’s best friend, and more, we’re sure, though we’ve never caught them kissing.
Contrary to TV lore, John Wayne was never seriously considered for the role of Marshal Dillon; instead, his protégé, 32-year-old Arness, whom the Duke had cast in four of his production company’s films, got the job. Though he’d been in 20 films before Gunsmoke, Arness (big brother to Peter Graves) was pretty much unknown, the one exception being his role as the costume-engulfed monster in 1951’s chilly The Thing. Making him Marshal Dillon was casting genius: Big of nose, steely of eye, wry of mouth, Arness could walk into a room under the watchful eye of millions of people and make them all trust him — and bad guys fear him.
In 1975, CBS brass bowed to changing times and demographics — Westerns’ diminishing audiences were considered too old and too rural — and decided Gunsmoke had seen its last sunrise. Stone, Curtis, and Blake are gone from this world now. Arness, 72, lives in semi-retirement in L.A.; Weaver, 70, became McCloud, TV’s urban-cowboy lawman, from 1970 to ’77, lives in Ridgway, Colo., and takes occasional TV roles. Gunsmoke reruns still air in various parts of the country, and Arness and crew have made five Gunsmoke TV movies since ’75, the last in 1994. ”I think primarily the reason for Gunsmoke‘s longevity…was the Gunsmoke family,” says Weaver. ”These people were very likable, very human, very believable.”
Additional reporting by David Walstad
Sept. 1, 1975
Movie theaters were packed to the gills for Jaws; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime struck a chord with fiction readers; and KC & the Sunshine Band’s ”Get Down Tonight” got to the top of the pop charts.