Gunsmoke (aka Gunlaw)

1955 - United States

The longest-running Western series on television (originally transmitted in the UK as Gun Law), starring James Arness, (brother of Peter Mission Impossible Graves), as US Marshall Matt Dillon. Everyone's favourite cowboy John Wayne introduced the first episode.

Gunsmoke began life as a radio series in 1952, created by Norman Macdonnell and John Meston after CBS chairman, William S. Paley had requested a hardcore Western series, about a "Philip Marlowe of the Old West". It very likely would have appeared on radio even earlier as an audition script starring Howard Culver in the lead was recorded in 1959. However, Culver was contracted to another Western show, Straight Arrow. As a result, the project was suspended for three years.

When it did finally debut, on 26 April 1952, William Conrad (Cannon) voiced Matt Dillon. With a resonantly powerful and distinctive voice which would later become familiar to viewers at the beginning of every episode of The Fugitive, Conrad was already one of radio's busiest actors.

Talk of a television adaptation began in the early days of the radio series but Norman Macdonnell resisted the call of anything other than a radio series insisting, "Our show is perfect for radio."

It was 1955 before the TV series went into production and was only the second adult Western television series to appear on the small screen, the first being The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp which debuted just four days ahead of Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke TV series

Before going in front of the cameras it was decided there needed to be cast changes to all the principal characters. William Conrad was deemed unsuitable because of his weight, as was another possible choice for Matt Dillon, Raymond Burr. Denver Pyle was also considered for the role but ultimately it went to Arness who had previously worked with the show's first director Charles Warren.

Gunsmoke TV series

Set in Dodge City in 1873, the other principal characters were Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) and limping deputy Chester (Dennis Weaver, later to star as TV detective McCloud). The stiff leg came about when it was pointed out that sidekicks almost always have some failing or weakness that makes them less capable than the star. It was Weaver's idea that a stiff leg would be the right thing. Burt Reynolds appeared for a while as blacksmith Quint Asper and when Chester left in 1964 he was replaced by Festus Hagen (Ken Curtis).

Both the Gunsmoke radio theme song and later television theme is titled Old Trails, but is also known as Boothill. The Gunsmoke theme was composed by Rex Koury.

Gunsmoke TV series

From 1955 to 1961, Gunsmoke was a half-hour show, retitled Marshal Dillon in syndication. It then went to an hour-long format. The series ran until March 1975, on CBS, with 635 total episodes.

Arness wore the Marshall's badge until he finally rode off into the sunset at the end of the second of two TV movies; Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge and Gunsmoke: The Last Apache - made in the late 1980's.

Published on February 7th, 2024. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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