As of this writing, Gunsmoke holds the distinction not only of being the longest-running TV western series, but also the longest-running dramatic series in network television history. The program began life in 1952 as a CBS radio program, set in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s. The radio version, which lasted until 1961, starred William Conrad as US Marshal Matt Dillon, Parley Baer as his deputy Chester Proudfoot, Howard McNear as Dr. Galen "Doc" Adams, and Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell, owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Three years into the series' radio run, producers Norman MacDonnell, John Meston and Charles Marquis Warren decided to bring Gunsmoke to television. After a brief period in which they were considering transferring the talented but physically inappropriate radio cast to the TV version, the producers opted to choose a whole new cast. It has been claimed that John Wayne was first choice for the role of TV's Matt Dillon, but in fact Wayne was far too big a film star to even consider taking the job. Instead, Wayne suggested that the producers cast his protégé, 6'7" James Arness, as Matt Dillon. As a sign of his approbation of Arness, Wayne agreed to introduce the TV series' first episode, "Matt Gets It", which originally aired September 10, 1955. The other new regulars included Dennis Weaver as Chester--now with the last name of Good, and equipped with a colorful limp--Milburn Stone as Doc Adams, and Amanda Blake as Kitty. During its first six seasons, Gunsmoke was seen in a half-hour format on CBS' Saturday-night schedule at 10 PM. Like its radio counterpart, the television version eschewed the "kiddie matinee" style of western series then in vogue (vis a vis such programs as The Lone Ranger, Range Rider and Wild Bill Hickok), and can be aptly described as TV's first "adult" western, featuring three-dimensional characters with all-too-human flaws and weaknesses, and stark, austere, realistic storylines. In fact, most of the episodes during the series' earliest seasons were adaptations from the radio Gunsmoke, rewritten only to adjust to the unique characterizations supplied by the four main actors. Though the program trailed behind its NBC competition The George Gobel show during its inaugural season, it quickly gained grown during season two, and by its third year on the air Gunsmoke was America's top-rated series, a status it sustained for the next four seasons. The show's popularity sparked an upsurge in TV westerns, which by 1958 all but dominated the airwaves. In the fall of 1961 Gunsmoke, still in its familiar Saturday-night berth, expanded from 30 to 60 minutes; that same year, selected reruns from the 233-episode half-hour version were run by CBS on Tuesdays at 7:30 PM, retitled Marshal Dillon (this version remained on CBS until October 1964). The longer format not only allowed for more in-depth stories and greater character development, but also eventually accommodated such A-list guest stars as Darren McGavin, Gilbert Roland, James Whitmore, Jean Arthur and Betty Hutton. In 1962, Dennis Weaver announced his intention to leave the series and began curtailing his appearances. This prompted the producers to cast about for a potential "Chester" replacement; among Matt Dillon's temporary deputies over the next few seasons were Burt Reynolds as half-breed blacksmith Quint Asper and Roger Ewing as callow young townsperson Thad Greenwood. Ultimately, it was Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, a scraggly hillbilly whose dubious morals were offset by his curious code of friendship and loyalty, who replaced Chester as deputy after Weaver left the series for good in 1964. Other peripheral characters introduced during the first 10 years of Gunsmoke were James Nusser as town drunk Louie Pheeters, Dabbs Greer as storekeeper Mr. Jonas, Sara Selby as boarding-house manager Ma Selby, and Glenn Strange as Sam, the Long Branch bartender. After producer Norman MacDonnell was replaced by British-born Philip Leacock in the fall of 1964 (largely the result of creative differences between McDonnell and star James Arness), the ratings of Gunsmoke began a precipitous slide, a fact which series costar Milburn Stone attributed to an influx of writers "who don't understand the show at all." Even the series' switchover from black and white to color in 1966 was not able to stem the decline in viewership, and it was announced that its eleventh season would be its last. In an eleventh-hour decision, CBS William Paley, a longtime Gunsmoke fan, decided to give the show a second chance by moving it from late Saturdays to a new, earlier 7:30 PM Monday timeslot; also, Philip Leacock left the series, with John Mantley taking over as executive producer. These moves turned out to be lifesavers: Despite stiff competition from NBC's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Gunsmoke rose steadily in the ratings, from sixth to fourth to second place within three years. All the while, fresh new characters were added to the cast, notably Buck Taylor as resourceful gunsmith Newly O'Brien. In 1971, Milburn Stone suffered a heart attack; accordingly, Doc Adams was temporarily replaced by Dr. John Chapman, played by Pat Hingle. By the time Stone had returned to the show, Amanda Blake had decided to leave; for the series' final season (1974-75), the Long Branch was under management of the matronly Miss Hannah, played by Fran Ryan. As for stalwart leading man James Arness, he had worked out an arrangement whereby he was required only to work three days per week--which explains why, in some of the later episodes, Matt Dillon barely appeared at all, usually showing up only in the final moments to dispatch the villain and tie up loose plot ends. Having outlasted virtually every other western on television, Gunsmoke ended its CBS run on September 1, 1975, having chalked up some 633 episodes. Between 1987 and 1994, five made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies were produced, all starring James Arness, but with only the first of the sequels (Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge) featuring surviving Gunsmoke regulars Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor.
by Hal Erickson synopsis