Long-running television shows frequently have to roll with the punches and figure out ways to keep audiences wanting to tune in. Gunsmoke made Ken Curtis’ Festus Haggen a series regular to replace Dennis Weaver’s beloved Chester Goode after he left to pursue other acting opportunities. However, Curtis refused to return for the first made-for-TV Gunsmoke movie after its 20-season run because of a couple of serious disagreements with a producer.
Gunsmoke met its end on CBS in 1975 after a surprise cancelation that the cast and crew didn’t see coming. The network returned the world back to Dodge City in 1987 with the first made-for-TV movie for the series subtitled Return to Dodge. U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon actor James Arness and Miss Kitty Russell star Amanda Blake both came back.
The story follows Will Mannon (Steve Forrest), who seeks revenge on those who were responsible for sending him to prison, putting Matt and Kitty in his crosshairs.
It was a big deal for longtime Gunsmoke fans who missed the show. Arness starred in all 20 seasons of the show, but Blake hadn’t been on the show since season 19. Meanwhile, Doc Adams actor Milburn Stone didn’t make a return because he died in 1980.
The decision-makers behind Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge wanted to see more familiar faces, including Curtis, reclaim their legendary roles. However, there was a battle of politics going on behind the scenes that made it impossible. The initial story was that it was all about the money, but according to David R. Greenland’s book, The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, that wasn’t the only thing.
“He wanted twice what Amanda is getting,” producer John Mantley said. “I said, ‘Ken, I can’t do that. He said, ‘Then I’m not coming.’ And that’s how it ended.”
However, that wasn’t the only problem. Curtis embraced Jim Byrnes’ original script, but the production was making some changes to it. The actor hated the changes and refused to come back with any of the changes made. It got so heated, he told Mantley never to call him again.
Greenland noted that Curtis wasn’t the only Gunsmoke cast member to draw issues with the script. Arness thought Earl Holliman’s Jake Flagg overshadowed Matt.
Curtis didn’t return for Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, finding other roles aside from Festus. For example, he played a retired police detective on NBC’s In the Heat of the Night and lent his voice to Disney’s 1973 animated film Robin Hood.
CBS brought another four made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies until the ratings started to decline. Arness returned as Matt for all of the films, but Blake only starred in Return to Dodge. The remainder of them were subtitled The Last Apache, To the Last Man, One Man’s Justice, and The Long Ride.
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