Back in the mid-20th century, Westerns were dominating the airwaves across the country. People loved to watch how the world used to be in the past and a number of successful shows and movies illustrated this for the world. Many different careers were launched from these shows and the shows themselves became household names. However, one stood out above them all and it was called “Gunsmoke.”
The incredibly popular show has been off the air for decades now, but its legacy still lives on. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and check out some cool facts about the show.
Gunsmoke Ran for 20 Years
For a television show to even be renewed for a second season is pretty impressive. Making a TV show is a huge gamble and it is nice to know that your hard work is recognized. Well not only did “Gunsmoke” get a second season, it got 20 seasons, making it one of the longest-running shows in TV history. The incredibly popular series ran from 1955-1975.
It Was Also a Radio Show
While most people likely know “Gunsmoke” in the TV show format, it actually got its start on the radio. Beginning in 1952, the show was broadcast over the airways before being picked up as a television show in 1955. The radio show was instrumental in the success of the TV show.
No Show Has Had More Episodes Than Gunsmoke
That’s right, of all the amazing shows on TV throughout history, no prime time live action drama has ever had more episodes to its name than “Gunsmoke.” In the 20 years in which the show ran it showed an incredible 635 episodes, which is a record that might never be broken again.
And Only One Show Has Had More Seasons
While no show can touch the number of episodes “Gunsmoke” put out, there is one show that lasted longer. “The Simpsons” is the only scripted series with recurring characters that has gone beyond 20 seasons. And the animated show exhibits no signs of slowing down, as it’s currently airing a 28th season.
It Was Almost Canceled
While a show that runs for 20 years is obviously popular and does very well, it wasn’t always peaches and cream for “Gunsmoke.” In fact, the show was actually slated to be canceled in 1967 due to a drop in ratings, but that decision was ultimately reversed by CBS.
William Conrad Played Matt Dillon on the Radio Version and Created the Character
Without the radio version of the show, the TV version would never have come about. And if it wasn’t for voice actor and producer William Conrad, the main character of the show would never have been created. In addition to playing the role on radio, he was also credited with creating the character.
He Also Had an Illustrious Career Outside the Show
While Conrad is probably best known for this role on the radio, he has done a ton of other work in Hollywood. He began as a film actor, switched to voice acting and narration and then ended his career as a producer and director in film, TV and the radio.
James Arness Played the Role Once it Moved to TV
Though Conrad has acted on camera before and handled the role on the radio, the show decided to go ahead with a new actor to play Matt Dillon, and that was James Arness. Arness played the role for the entire 20-year history of the show and it garnered him a ton of fame.
Arness Would Play the Role in Five Different Decades
While the show only ran for 20 years, it spawned numerous remakes in the form of various TV movies. And even though he had obviously aged considerably, Arness maintained the role of Matt Dillon all the way from the 1950s to the 1990s, over the span of five different movies.
The List of Guest Stars is Amazing
On a show that ran as long as this did with as many episodes as it had, it is no shocker that the show had an impressive list of people that guest starred on it. This list included Charles Bronson, Gary Busey, Beau Bridges, Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, and so many more.
There Was a Rumor That Albert Einstein Appeared on the Show
For some reason, a rumor began circulating that the world famous scientist Albert Einstein had appeared on the show in some capacity, which would have been an unlikely pairing for sure. But after some research, it was revealed that Einstein died a few months before the show aired and thus could not have been a part of the TV show.
The Show Offers Little Backstory
When a new series or show starts on TV, normally, it will introduce and give a little backstory to the characters. But with “Gunsmoke,” that didn’t happen at all. The show decided to leave the backstory up to the imagination of the viewers, which they didn’t seem to mind.
The Show Consistently Ranked Very High
For a show to last this long, it has to be popular. And boy, was this show ever popular. From 1957-1961, it came in at number one for the Nielsen ratings each and every year. After a few years of lower ratings, it came back in the 70s to earn top 10 ratings once again.
John Wayne Helped them Secure Their Star
John Wayne is probably the most famous Western star of all time. And while he wasn’t considered for the role, he helped Arness get the part. While the show’s producers and casting directors liked Arness for the part, he was reluctant to take it. But after some conversations with Wayne, he agreed to become Matt Dillon.
The Show Won Emmys in Three Different Decades
Throughout the history of the show, fans and the critics alike thought it was great. As a result, the show was nominated for 15 Emmys and won five of them. And when they won an Emmy in the 50s, 60s and 70s, they joined a short list of shows to win Emmys in three different decades.
Parley Baer Used to be in the Circus
Before becoming a TV actor, Parley Baer was active in the circus. He had a background in the circus and after graduating school became a ringmaster and publicist for the greatest show on Earth. After that, he went on to become a wild animal trainer later in his life and even became a docent at a zoo.
The Creator’s Wife Was a Bull Fighter
The Wife of John Meston (co-creator of the show) is truly one of the most unique women out there. In addition to being an actress, she also later became a professional bullfighter. She was also the first woman to fight in the Plaza Mexico, which is the largest bullfighting arena on the entire planet.
Gunsmoke was Used to Endorse Various Products
When the show began to become incredibly popular and successful, their name was used as a majorly important branding tool as people wanted to be associated with the show in any way. In fact, numerous different products used the “Gunsmoke” brand to promote them. Included in this list were toys, cigarettes, and even cottage cheese.
Amanda Blake Became a Famous Animal Breeder
After being done with her role on “Gunsmoke,” and giving acting a break in general, Blake and her husband did something that you would never expect of them. The pair took to breeding animals and together, they ran the first ever successful program on the planet for breeding cheetahs in captivity.
The Show Is Consistently Rated on the Best of all Time Lists
Since the show has gone off the air and entered syndication, it has received a ton of praise, especially from critics. Numerous different magazines (TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly and more) have named the show (and a few of their episodes) as one of the best of all time on numerous different lists.
James Arness, known as Marshal Matt Dillon to diehard “Gunsmoke” fans, was also famous for his role in the series “How the West Was Won,” in which he portrayed Zeb Macahan. Arness also had appearances in other shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “McClain’s Law,” as well as in films such as The Lone Hand, Gun the Man Down, Her Twelve Men, and Many Rivers to Cross.
Arness had a very famous sibling, also an actor. Peter Graves was his kid brother. Graves was best known for playing Jim Phelps in the original “Mission: Impossible” television series. He also portrayed an airline pilot in the 1980 film Airplane! and the subsequent Airplane II: The Sequel.
Now, That’s Tall!
James Arness stood at an astonishing 6’7” tall, putting him a full three inches taller than John Wayne, who was considered a giant. In a 2006 interview, Arness was asked about his height and why he didn’t seem to dwarf his co-stars onscreen. He replied, “I guess people just had to get used to it. The big thing with the show was that we had a lot of really fine actors, and more than that, we had started out with great writing.”
Friendship With John Wayne
James Arness and John Wayne were close personal friends – perhaps their tall statures united them. The two co-starred in the films Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase. Here’s something else Arness and Wayne shared: May 26 birthdays. Arness was born in 1923, and Wayne in 1907.
Arness was a private man when he wasn’t actively playing a role. He was married twice during his life. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his ex-wife died of a drug overdose years later. Arness married Janet Surteesin 1978 and remained with her until his death. His personal hobbies included surfing, sailing, and poetry.
Before he died, Arness composed a letter to his wife that was later posted to his website. It read, “”I had a wonderful life and was blessed with so many loving people and great friends.”
Festus Haggen was the scruffy, nasally-voiced deputy, and one of Marshal Matt Dillon’s best friends on “Gunsmoke.” He was played by actor Ken Curtis. Interestingly, this iconic character didn’t debut on the show until its 8th season, and Curtis appeared in other roles on “Gunsmoke” before stepping into Festus’ trademark hat.
Ken Curtis eventually became known for his hillbilly accent. But in real life, the actor didn’t have a country accent at all and actually hailed from the state of Colorado! After “Gunsmoke,” Curtis went on to other classic television shows like “Petrocelli,” “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “In The Heat of the Night.”
To honor Ken Curtis, there’s a statue of Festus in Clovis, California, where Curtis spent the final years of his life. The statue was erected soon after his 1991 death. Curtis left behind a wife, Torrie Connelly, and two children along with his legacy of great acting. After his death, his cremated ashes were spread in his home state of Colorado.
Miss Kitty Russell, the fiery-haired saloon owner on “Gunsmoke,” was Matt Dillon’s love interest on the show, although the true nature of their relationship was never officially revealed. The chemistry between the two worked both on a friendship and a romantic level, something that James Arness acknowledged in a later interview.
After “Gunsmoke,” Amanda Blake acted in several other television series including “The Quest,” “The Love Boat,” “Hart to Hart,” “Brothers, and “Dragnet,” as well as several films. Blake died in 1989, at the age of 60, due to AIDS-related complications. She also had oral cancer at the time.
As mentioned earlier, “Gunsmoke” hosted many notable guest stars over the years. In a 1969 episode called “Charlie Noon,” a young actor named Ronnie Howard appeared as a character named Jamie Barker. Howard, of course, later went on to achieve great fame as both an actor and a director.
Another famous actor appeared on “Gunsmoke” just before he rocketed to stardom. Richard Dreyfuss was in the 1973 episode “This Golden Land,” and the hit film Jaws debuted in theatres only two years later. Dreyfuss went on to land leading roles in American Graffiti, Stand by Me, What About Bob?, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and many more.
Without Her Bottle
One of the most recognizable television actresses of all time made a guest appearance on “Gunsmoke.” Barbara Eden, best known as the loveable and lovely Jeannie on the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” was in the 1957 episode “Romeo.” She played a lovestruck character named Judy Pierce.
Live Long And Prosper
From the wild west to outer space. That’s the journey that actor Leonard Nimoy embarked upon when he appeared in several episodes of “Gunsmoke” before eventually becoming world-famous for his iconic role as Spock in “Star Trek.” The episodes were “A Man a Day,” “The Search,” “I Call Him Wonder” and “Treasure of John Walking Fox.”
Another Iconic Star Trek Guy!
William Shatner, Captain James T. Kirk on “Star Trek,” also appeared in “Gunsmoke.” In 1966’s “Quaker Girl,” Shatner played a murderer named Fred Bateman. After “Star Trek, Mr. Shatner went on to take roles in “T. J. Hooker,” “Rescue 911,” “Boston Legal,” and “The Practice.”
During the opening scene of “Gunsmoke,” James Arness as Matt Dillon participates in a shoot-out with an unknown gunman. The scene takes place in the main street of a small town, and was shot on the same set as the 1952 western High Noon, which starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
One High Noon actor, who later became quite famous for another film role, was Harry Morgan. He played three different characters (Jed Hockett, John Milligan, Osgood Pickett) across four separate episodes of “Gunsmoke”, which were “Brides and Grooms,” “The Wiving,” “Milligan,” and “The Witness.” These episodes were filmed over a five year span, from 1970 to 1975.
Harry Morgan, of course, is very well known for his portrayal of Col. Sherman T. Potter on the hit television classic M*A*S*H. Morgan had an acting career that spanned six decades, and he worked on hundreds of shows and films during his lifetime. He passed away in 2011, at the age of 96.
The Other Matt Dillon
There’s another famous Matt Dillon now, in the form of a heartthrob American actor. Matthew Raymond Dillon goes by the name “Matt,” and is known for his roles in films such as Over the Edge, My Bodyguard, Tex, The Outsiders, Beautiful Girls, and There’s Something About Mary.
And Another Famous Brotherhood
Although the younger Matt was born in 1964, while “Gunsmoke” was still on the air, he was named after an uncle and not for the television character. The real-life Matt Dillon does share something in common with James Arness: he also has a famous brother. Kevin Dillon is best known for acting in films like Platoon and The Doors as well as the hit HBO series “Entourage.”