The fact that Gunsmoke is able to enter its 10th season despite ever-descending ratings is a tribute not only to the series' solid story and production values but also its most fervent fans. Had it been any other series, Gunsmoke would have ground to a halt as the result of its many artistic setbacks during its tenth year on the air. For one thing, the series lost its longtime producer and spiritual guide Norman McDonnell, who had grown weary of battling over story content and dialogue with star James Arness, who for all intents and purposes now "owned" the Gunsmoke franchise. McDonnell's replacement was British-born Philip Leacock, who at first seemed to have a strong grip on the series' established formula, but who within a year would compromise Gunsmoke's austerity and realism with an influx of writers unfamiliar with the western format--not to mention a plethora of "celebrity" guest stars who were hired more for name value than their appropriateness to the series. The first inkling of this trend occurred during the first weeks of Season Ten, when Leacock dreamed up a publicity stunt whereby local TV personalities from the various CBS affiliates throughout the land would appear in minor roles on Gunsmoke; for example, Chicago talk-show hostess Lee Philips showed up as a frightened stagecoach passenger, while Milwaukee kiddie-show emcee Tommy Richards was seen as a big-time gambler. These appearances, though amusing, invariably smacked of gimmickry, something Gunsmoke had never been guilty of in the past. By the time Gunsmoke reached the end of its tenth season, producer Leacock would have gone far beyond local TV personalities and provided guest roles for the likes of Jean Arthur and Betty Hutton--talented ladies admittedly, but rather out of place in Dodge City. Also, Dennis Weaver,aka the loyal lovable deputy marshal Chester Good, had left the series, never to return. The producers still hadn't hit upon a suitable replacement for Chester, despite trying out Burt Reynolds in the role of halfbreed blacksmith Quint Asper and Ken Curtis as mercurial hillbilly Festus Haggen. Fortunately, Curtis firmly cemented his position on the series with the mid-season episode "Deputy Festus", and would remain with Gunsmoke until its final episode ten years later. For Reynolds, however, Season Ten was the end of the line: he was clearly far more comfortable as a leading man than as a supporting player, and within seven years he would ascend to the top of his profession in theatrical features. Happily, James Arness, Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone were still in fine fettle in their respective roles as Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Doc Adams. And, of course, Gunsmoke benefited from a steady stream of reliable supporting players, among them George Kennedy, Denver Pyle, Jack Elam, Mariette Hartley, Claude Akins, Jeanette Nolan, Hal Needham and Forrest Tucker.
by Hal Erickson synopsis