Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Gunsmoke Journal: #1, Dodge City and Me

I love me some Gunsmoke.

And I’m clearly not the only one. Gunsmoke is the longest running dramatic series in television history –broadcast from 1955 till 1975, for a total of 20 seasons. Law and Order, a show I also love, managed to tie this feat –but with a caveat. The cast of L&O turned over several times during its run, with none of the original ensemble group making it the whole time. In fact, the longest tenure of any original first-season L&O character was five seasons (Mike Noth’s Det. Logan, although he did appear several seasons in the spinoff Criminal Intent.)

On the other hand, the four main characters introduced in the first episode of Gunsmoke had staying power. Marshal Matt Dillon remained the central protagonist for all 20 seasons. Doctor “Doc” Galen Adams also appeared for 20 seasons, although he missed most of Season 17 due to heart surgery. Miss Kitty made it for 19, leaving before the final year. Even the short-timer, Chester Goode, made it partway into the ninth season.

Kelsey Grammer’s “Frasier Crane” character tied Matt Dillon for longest run of an actor in a television role –but there is a similar caveat there. Frasier was not introduced on Cheers until the third season, and for two years was only a recurring guest rather than a featured cast member. James Arness brought Matt Dillon to the small screen as the main character of a program for twenty consecutive years –plus a series of TV movies, from 1987 till 1994. So in a way, James Arness played Matt Dillon for closer to 40 years.

But even twenty years is a big chunk of time. When Gunsmoke premiered my father was eleven years old. When it was cancelled I was almost eight –and when the final TV movie featuring retired marshal Matt Dillon aired, I was 26 and a father myself. To this day, love of Gunsmoke continues to be one of the bonds between my father and me, and we discuss it often.

I remember watching “The Deadly Innocent” with my grandma –and informs me this was on Dec. 17, 1973. I distinctly remember watching “The Tarnished Badge” –in which Victor French, whom I recognized as the kindly Isaiah Edwards from Little House on the Prairie, played a vicious sheriff that Matt had to bring to justice. The next day I re-enacted the story with my Marx cowboy action figures on the red clay banks behind our home (Johnny West was Matt Dillon, and Pat Garrett was the evil sheriff.) Whenever I think of that episode, I smell that red clay. That was Nov. 11, 1974.

That year my mom was in the hospital for awhile. My step-father, my older cousin, and I were on our own for several days. I remember our efforts to make breakfast that Sunday morning… the result being biscuits so hard you could break a window with them, and gravy so thick it was hard to pull the spoon out of it. And we watched the two-part episode “Island in the Desert,” in which Festus was held captive by a crazed prospector played by the great Strother Martin (who had a pet rattlesnake named Homer.) In a bizarre sort of family tradition, for years afterward we delighted ourselves in imitating Martin’s distinctive nasal voice: “Bite’im, Homer!” “I’ll cut ye, Festus, and I’ll cut ye good!” That was early December, 1974.

When I was 18 I had a job buffing floors at Wal-mart –back in the days when such stores actually closed at night, from 9pm till 9am. The floor guys would be locked in overnight. The other floor guy became my best friend –and he was a huge Gunsmoke fan. Syndicated repeats showed on the local Fox outlet at 10 pm every weeknight… when we were at work, yet before the rest of the employees went home and got out of our way. We had a contraband VCR tape that we kept hidden above the ceiling tiles in the janitor’s closet… every night, just after we got to work, we’d secretly stick it into one of the display TV/VCR’s, turn it to the proper channel, and push record. Every morning at 2am we’d retrieve it and watch Gunsmoke on our lunch break. Those are some great memories. And beyond that, the steady western diet contributed to me writing my own western stories at night while locked in those stores, never dreaming that I would one day be a published author.

I decided to occasionally write about the show on my blog- future installments will be more about the program itself, rather than my own nostalgic attachment to it. But I’m willing to bet that many of you have your own Gunsmoke stories, and I invite you to share them in your comments.
It’s hard to get out of Dodge.

Check out my other installments of the Gunsmoke Journal:

#2 Marshal of What, Exactly?

#3 Chester vs Festus 



  1. Great essay. I grinned at the part about watching it on a VCR at 2am.

  2. Wow, you're a true blue fan. I never watched Gunsmoke. Lots of other western TV shows, but not that one -- dunno why.

  3. I love the essay... so much so, I posted a link on my Facebook page.

    *thumbs up*

  4. This is Great, and it is so true and so , so over due,.. Gunsmoke should have been inducted..into the Television Decades ago!

  5. that was tremedous! I remember complaining to my dad that I didnt want to watch Gunsmoke because Monday Night Football was I cant get enough Gunsmoke, I even have a FB page for the radio version. thanks for this. Can I share this on my page?

  6. Feel free, Jim! And I should be writing a fourth installment in this series soon.

  7. I watched my first Western way back in the 1950's with Boots and saddles, then you have a number of westerns, like Rawhide, Wagon Train, but somehow for me anyway Gunsmoke seems to have the edge, maybe it was due to solid acting good stories.

  8. Best show ever. Watch it every day and think of my dad.

  9. I love gunsmokei watch it every day mat dillion is my man