Gunsmoke is one of the most successful television series in history. Dominating the airwaves for a full 2 decades, it dominated the ratings for a good portion of its existence. But more importantly, most fans and critics alike agree that this show is the definitive Western drama series. Who are the people behind this smashing success, and what is the legacy this show left behind?
Gunsmoke first started as a radio drama show that chronicles life at Dodge City, Kansas, during the settlement era. Because of compelling storytelling and equally compelling characters, they quickly became a favorite for radio listeners during that time. Because of the success of the radio series, a TV adaptation seemed to be a formality waiting to happen. And CBS listened to this call. The result is the TV adaptation of Gunsmoke, which was first aired in 1955.
A couple of different actors tried and played the lead role of the Marshal Matt Dillon, including superstar John Wayne and the Dillon from the radio version, William Conrad. But eventually, the lead role went to James Arness, the same guy who will play the role for all Gunsmoke episodes aired. Other actors that played a pivotal role in putting the characters into life include Milburn Stone in the role of Dr. G. Adams, Amanda Blake playing Kitty Russell, Ken Curtis portraying Festus Haggen, and Dennis Weaver in the role of Chester Goode. Guest roles from luminaries such as Burt Reynolds and Buck Taylor are also spread-out throughout the entire run of this show. Even though each character is portrayed effectively in the show, most details about them are left to the imagination of the viewers.
To say the least, this TV show was warmly received by people from all walks of life. Despite the consistent revolving door of cast members (only Arness and Stone are present in all 20 seasons of the show) and constantly-switching timeslots and showing in different formats, it still maintained a steady hold of their audience. This is evidenced by consistently healthy ratings from beginning to end. In fact, it’s been reported that Gunsmoke is on its way to being cut in 1967. But fans (including the wife of the then-CBS president) were not happy about it, and as a result kept the show running until its official cancellation in 1975.
There are different reasons why this show is considered to be the greatest Western-themed drama series of all time and one of the most important and influential TV shows of the 20th century. One of them is its realism. They somehow captured the essence of life in the Wild West, and fans did appreciate that. It had great action, great drama, and characters that are full of character. This perhaps is the key to the show’s unprecedented staying power (their 635 episodes is the most for any live-action drama in America). In fact, re-runs of these episodes are still very popular.
Gunsmoke is more than just a great TV series. It also created an entire niche around Western dramas. Because of this fact, it more than deserves its place in the pantheon of the greatest TV shows ever made.