Friday, April 25, 2008

Favourite tv shows: Gunsmoke (1955 - 1975)


Writer John Meston and producer Norman MacDonnell created in 1952 a radio drama with a post War noirish heart. "Gunsmoke" told the story of Marshal Matt Dillon and Dodge City. A man and a place of honour and flaws. The rumbly, world weary baritone of William Conrad perfectly captured the character of Dillon. Along with Howard McNear's Doc Adams, Georgia Ellis' Kitty and Parley Baer's Chester Goode, the series ran until 1961. The popularity of the program encouraged CBS to move "Gunsmoke" to television.

Bill Conrad's completely understandable affection for comfort food left him out of the running to represent Matt on screen. It has been said that they role was offered to John Wayne, but it seems odd to me that one of the biggest box office stars of the 50s would consider a half hour television series. Denver Pyle, who would guest many times on the program, was this close to having the role, but John Wayne suggested one of his Batjac contract players - a young fellow named James Arness. In his autobiography Arness says he was happy with his burgeoning film career and didn't think television was for him. Mr. Wayne (thanks, Duke) basically told Jim he was nuts if he didn't take the job. Amanda Blake, following her instinct, knew she was right for Kitty and made a nuisance of herself until producers finally saw things her way. After hundreds of movie roles Milburn Stone settled down to steady work as Doc Adams. Beloved by fans, he would win an Emmy in the 60s. Dennis Weaver came up with a limp at his audition to make his Chester Goode a stand out character.

Charles Marquis Warren would be the first producer as CBS kept MacDonnell with radio. By the second season MacDonnell was on board with the television show. Many of those earlier episodes were adapted from the radio plays. John Meston would write 257 episodes of "Gunsmoke" in his career. Another writer who would be responsible for the show's success was Kathleen Hite, CBS's first female staff writer. Between 1957 - 1965 she wrote over 40 episodes of the program, creating well-rounded and believable characters and plots. Her career would have continued success up to the 70s with "The Waltons" and she was inducted into the Heritage Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1969.

"Gunsmoke" would change to hour long episodes in 1961. New cast members would come and go: Burt Reynolds as Quirt, Roger Ewing as Thad. Dennis Weaver would leave for creatively greener pastures leaving the door open for Ken Curtis to create the popular sidekick of Festus Haggen. The major shake-up would come when CBS replaced Norman MacDonnell in 1964/5. Philip Leacock (director, The Kidnappers) would take over as executive producer bringing the series into its colour years. Toronto born John Mantley would take over the position from Leacock and continue until the series ended. Mantley felt a genuine obligation to the history and quality of the program. Writer Jim Byrnes would come on board in 1968 creating the majority of the episodes for the remainder of the run. Actor Buck Taylor would settle in perfectly as "the young guy", Newly O'Brien.

The most prolific director of the series was Andrew V. McLaglen, but his companions were top-notch as well: Arnold Laven, Arthur Hiller, Mark Rydell, Philip Leacock, Robert Stevenson, Sam Peckinpah, Vincent McEveety, William F. Claxton. These and others brought their individual styles and a consistent level of quality to "Gunsmoke".

Cancellation in 1975 came as a surprise to the creative team. They had slipped below 25 in the ratings for the first time in their history and a new regime at the network wanted to place their own stamp on television. Producer Mantley, writer Byrnes and actor James Arness would go on to create the popular "How the West Was Won" ("The Macahans). Arness would reprise Matt Dillon in five highly rated TV movies: "Return to Dodge" (1987), "The Last Apache" (1990), "To the Last Man" (1992), "The Long Ride" (1993), "One Man's Justice" (1994). This does make one wonder if CBS did jump the gun back in 1975.

The characters, the stories, the presentation - some programs touch us, become our favourites. "Gunsmoke" is such a one for me. The mix of adventure, drama and comedy with the fine cast and marvelous guest stars represent what television can achieve. That old Dodge City gang is a family I look forward to spending time with, sometimes on a comforting, familiar level and sometimes to study and appreciate the so many creative talents who left a fine storytelling legacy.

Recommended DVDs:

GUNSMOKE: 50th Anniversary Collection, 6 discs including 29 episodes from the 50s to 70s, special introductions, commentaries, Emmy footage, etc.

GUNSMOKE: The Directors Collection, 3 discs including 15 episodes with commentaries from Andrew McLaglen, Arthur Hiller, Mark Rydell, John Rich, etc.

1 comment:

  1. Gunsmoke consistently provided top notch entertainment. I find solace in the premature demise knowing that it paved the way for How the West Was Won.

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