Gunsmoke actor James Arness was the face of the CBS Western television shows for more than the reason that he played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. The cast and crew agreed that he was the heart of the show behind the scenes, setting the scene for the entire production. Arness was so in tune with Gunsmoke that he had an intriguing response to what the “real” message of the show was that kept audiences tuning in for all of those years.
Gunsmoke was a radio show before Arness, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, and Dennis Weaver joined the cast. The original iteration began in 1952, running well-past Dodge City’s introduction to television audiences through to 1961. Meanwhile, the adaptation first hit the air in 1955, running for a stunning 20 seasons until 1975. Then, it was suddenly canceled by CBS without any warning to the cast or crew.
The radio show allowed Gunsmoke to excel on television, having a tried and true formula that creatives could refer to. However, it later became less and less of a blueprint. Arness and his Gunsmoke co-stars initially took much from the radio iteration, but later learned how to make the roles their own. Additionally, the writers and producers found new ways to expand the ensemble cast to include guest stars to keep the formula from feeling stale, although Stone hated the idea.
Arness spoke about all things Gunsmoke in a 2006 interview with Signal. The Western genre had its time as one of the most popular pieces of storytelling for quite some time. Movie star John Wayne represented the face of the genre on the silver screen, with Clint Eastwood becoming an icon of a different generation of Westerns.
Meanwhile, Gunsmoke was one of many Western television shows to air over the years. However, they couldn’t quite capture the magic that Matt and Dodge City had. Signal asked Arness what the message behind Gunsmoke was that made it so successful.
“I think you could say that compared to most of the Westerns that had been, up to that point in time — no criticism of them, but they were more or less — I wouldn’t say ‘kid shows,’ but they were more or less kind of ‘fun-time’ Westerns, whereas Gunsmoke they dubbed the ‘adult’ Westernk,” Arness said. “Actually I think it was the premise of it. They told stories of real life and real characters, and stories that we hoped the audience would become involved in. That kind of approach. And evidently they did.”
Arness had a strong understanding of Gunsmoke after starring in its lead role for so many years. After 20 seasons and five made-for-TV movies, longtime fans still can’t get enough. It continues to draw viewers in through reruns and its availability on streaming services.
There’s no doubt that Gunsmoke left quite an impact on entertainment as a whole. Even filmmaker Quentin Tarantino created a well-placed nod to it in a fictional television show in the Oscar-winning Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
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