Gunsmoke is an American radio and television Western drama series created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston. The stories take place in and around Dodge City, Kansas, during the settlement of the American West. The radio series ran for more than 400 episodes and lasted until 1961. John Dunning writes that among radio drama enthusiasts “Gunsmoke is routinely placed among the best shows of any kind and any time.”
The TV series ran from September 10, 1955 to March 31, 1975 on CBS with 635 total episodes. It is the longest running, prime time series of the 20th century. Today, it still has the highest number of scripted episodes for any, U.S. primetime, commercial live-action television series. James Arness and Milburn Stone portrayed their Gunsmoke characters for 20 consecutive years. Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty, was with the show for 19 years, from it’s inception in 1955 until 1974 when she retired from show business. George Walsh, the announcer for Gunsmoke, began in 1952 on radio’s Gunsmoke and continued until television’s Gunsmoke was canceled in 1975. Gunsmoke was TV’s No. 1 ranked show from 1957 to 1961 before slipping into a decline after expanding to an hour. In 1967, the show’s 12th season, CBS planned to cancel the series, but widespread viewer reaction (including a mention in Congress and the behind-the-scenes pressure from the wife of CBS’s president) prevented its demise. It was moved from Saturday night to Monday night (cancelling Gilligan’s Island in the process), placing it back in the Nielsen’s Top Ten. When the show was cancelled in 1975 the entire cast was stunned by the cancellation, as they were unaware that CBS was considering it. According to Arness, “We didn’t do a final, wrap-up show. We finished the 20th year, we all expected to go on for another season, or two or three. The (network) never told anybody they were thinking of canceling.” The cast and crew read the news in the trade papers. Gunsmoke, along with “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” helped launch a great era of the TV western. Westerns became so popular on TV that by the end of the 1950s, there would be as many as 40 Westerns in prime time.
At the end of its run in 1975, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote “Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western as romanticized by Buntline, Harte, and Twain. It was ever the stuff of legend.”
The famous opening scene of every episode showed Matt Dillon facing down a gunman on Dodge City’s main street, the gunman drawing and firing and Dillon firing back. That “gunman” was actor and quick-draw artist Rodd Redwing, famous for his ability to draw his gun from its holster and fire it in only two-tenths of a second. The gunfight between Matt Dillon and Rodd Rewing that opened every episode was shot on the same main street as that used in High Noon. Based on salary, royalties and residuals during syndication, Rod is believed to have received $20,000 a year for just getting shot at the opening by James Arness.
According to “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” (8th Edition, pg. 495), John Wayne was the first choice to play Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, but declined because he did not want to commit to a weekly TV series. He did, however, recommend his friend James Arness for the role, and gave the on-camera introduction in the pilot.
JOHN WAYNE Introduces the first episode of Gunsmoke