Monday, November 23, 2009

Favorite TV Show

As part of the blog-world-wide attempt to discuss our favorite TV shows, I'm adding my voice to the chorus. Frankly, Pattinase took my first choice, LEAVE TO BEAVER. But when I thought it over there was another show that was more of a must-see for me in my pre-teen days: GUNSMOKE

I have to qualify that a bit. My favorite GUNSMOKE shows were the episodes with Chester, 1955-1964.  The show lasted an incredible 20 years (1955-1975) although the star, James Arness, was frequently a cameo in many of the later years.

The series took place in Dodge City, Kansas, after the Civil War, and in the days of the trail drives from Texas to the Kansas railheads. Marshall Matt Dillon (Arness), his deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), and Doctor Galen "Doc" Adams (Milburn Stone), provided the nexus for the stories. GUNSMOKE, along with THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP (which premiered the same week), were the first adult TV westerns and portrayed gritty violence absent from shows like THE LONE RANGER and HOPALONG CASSIDY--shows I also loved. I recall one episode in which a gang of killers is running rampant through the countryside wiping out entire farm families and trying to make it look like the work of Indians, including murdering and scalping children. Matt and Chester eventually confront the bad guys and shoot them down like the dogs they were, Chester's shotgun being very effective in the close quarter lead fest. Heady stuff, and it taught me a valuable lesson: no mercy for evil killers.

GUNSMOKE started out as a radio show, with William Conrad as the voice of Matt. The rotund, short Conrad, while a fine actor, wasn't right for the TV version of Matt and the role was offered to John Wayne. The Duke didn't want to do televison and suggested his friend James Arness, a 6'7" actor who'd played supporting parts in a couple of John Wayne movies and was the monster in THE THING. After a slow first season the show picked up steam and was soon number one in the ratings.

Over the years a lot of supporting roles came and went. When Chester left he was replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus Hagen (another guy who'd played parts in Wayne movies, as well as doing a stint in The Sons of the Pioneers). Sam the bartender was played by Glenn Strange, who once portrayed Frankenstein. Burt Reynolds showed up for three seasons as a blacksmith.

Perhaps one of my sentimental favorites was Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, the owner of the Long Branch Saloon and Matt's paramour. I wasn't interested in girls at that young age, but Miss Kitty stirred something in my child's mind that made me admire her greatly. It's no accident that the female lead in my first book is named Amanda. I was saddened when I learned she died from AIDS contracted from her bi-sexual husband.

For the first six years of its existence GUNSMOKE was a 30-minute show, in glorious black & white. Color came along in the middle sixties. I believe many of the scripts from these 30-minute episodes were cribbed from the radio incarnation. You might remember Matt walking through Boot Hill, his voiceover setting up the premise for that evening's telecast. Or maybe you remember the show's opening of the gunfight, or Matt riding hell for leather across the plains. Since Arness didn't much like horses, that must have been a fun shoot for him. BYW, Matt's horse was named Buck.

Another sharp memory for me was watching the show the two years we lived at Rosewood Lane in Denbigh, Virginia. In order to get the prime seat in the rec room (a converted garage) I'd stake out my spot early. That meant I had to endure my father's weekly viewing of THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW. For this little rock 'n' roller, that was dedication.

PS: Marx made a GUNSMOKE playset with character figures of Matt, Chester, Miss Kitty, and Doc. For some reason it included a mining operation.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It's added. I well remember the night when I was deemed old enough to watch this with my grandparents. I felt like I had arrived.

Evan Lewis said...

Great piece, Cap'n. You tried Joe West's Gunsmoke books yet? I'm reading the first, Blood, Bullets and Buckskin, and it's great stuff. I too prefer Chester, and this features Festus, but I ain't minding a bit.

James Reasoner said...

One of my great memories is sitting around the hotel lobby at a WWA convention one night talking to Paul Savage, who was the story editor on GUNSMOKE for years. Kerry Newcomb was with us, too, and he and I sat gaping like the GUNSMOKE fanboys we are as Paul spun yarn after yarn about the show, the cast, and the crew. He was furious about what happened to Amanda Blake.

Also, didn't you know there are mines within one day's ride of Dodge City, Cap'n? And deserts and mountains and forests and every other kind of terrain that exists west of the Mississippi. At least that's the way it seemed.

Chad said...

Obviously, I watched it in reruns. But I loved Gunsmoke a great deal. Especially the episodes when Dennis Weaver was the sidekick.

My mother's father was a coal miner. She has vivid memories of his tv habits. He watched two things: the news with Walter Kronkite and Gunsmoke. You could get away with chatting through the news, but you had to be quiet during Gunsmoke.

George said...

Like Patti, when I was allowed to stay up to watch GUNSMOKE, I felt special. But I must admit I preferred HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL to GUNSMOKE. Even at an early age, I felt an attraction to darker, more complex characters.

Richard Prosch said...

I've probably experienced more episodes on radio than TV. Conrad is stuck forever in my mind as Marshal Dillon. Not so my wife, who religiously watched Arness and hears "Cannon" when we listen to OTR.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I read a couple of the West books, Evan. I liked them but didn't consider them true Gunsmoke novels. Too many variations from the show.

I, too, like HGWT, George, but sometimes Richard Boone chewed the scenery mercilessly trying to make more of the script than was there.

George said...

I was eight or nine years old when I first started watching HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, Bob. I was too young at that time to figure out that Richard Boone was chewing the scenery. I have the DVD collections and I watch them in small doses.