26 May 2008 | bkoganbing
When You're Talking TV Westerns
When you're talking TV westerns there are only two really that are at the top, interchangeably as it were. One is CBS's Gunsmoke and the other is NBC's Bonanza. Then you discuss anything else.
It's interesting to speculate how John Wayne's career might have taken a different turn had he accepted the offer to star in a weekly half hour television show about the Marshal of Dodge City. But of course he didn't do it, but instead pushed hard for an even taller marshal for the Kansas frontier town. James Arness had co-starred with the Duke in Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and Hondo. He certainly brought a Duke like presence to the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.
A lot of people forget that Gunsmoke was a radio series for several years before it came to television. It ran parallel on radio in the declining years of radio drama and the voice of Matt Dillon on the radio was William Conrad. Certainly a capable enough actor, Conrad's squat appearance just didn't match the description on radio of Dillon. Why do you think John Wayne was the first choice?
Besides the regulars on every week which included Dennis Weaver as the stiff legged somewhat mentally challenged Deputy Chester Goode, Milburn Stone as testy and cantankerous Doctor Galen Adams, and Amanda Blake as Matt's significant other, Kitty Russell of the Longbranch saloon, the writers were smart enough to make sure the producers kept a recurring cast of regulars as the townspeople. Roy Roberts the banker, Eddy Waller as the livery stable owner, Glenn Strange as the bartender in the Longbranch, and for a while Burt Reynolds as a blacksmith, popped up in several episodes a year, even just with a line or two. It kept a great sense of continuity and the whole community of Dodge City became like familiar friends.
Poor Dennis Weaver who related the stiff leg was his idea to establish individuality of his character and that he had to study yoga in order to walk with it and mount a horse said that he would have done something different if he knew how difficult it was going to be. He read for the Matt Dillon part and took the role of Chester because he needed the work. But after several seasons, he naturally did not want to spend his career typecast as a half wit. He quit and the rustic Festus Hagen came on as the Deputy. Festus was uneducated, but was by no means stupid. His arguments with the cantankerous Doc Adams were classic. Festus was played with real flair by Ken Curtis.
If Gunsmoke is remembered for something other than a really great western series, maybe the best we ever had on television, it's the show that was saved by White House intervention. Along about 1965 because of declining ratings CBS was considering giving it the axe. But in an interview Lady Bird Johnson happened to mention that Gunsmoke was her favorite television show. That offhand comment revived interest in the series and CBS kept Gunsmoke on for another decade.
Gunsmoke was an adult western, the plot situations were adult, but it's characters were both real and morally upright. Matt Dillon was no kid's cowboy hero like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but he was honest and decent and a fine role model who was incorruptible. And he and Kitty Russell had an adult romance going in the same manner as Perry Mason and Della Street. It was unspoken that sex as well as liquor was to be had at the Longbranch, but Miss Kitty had eyes only for the Marshal.
As did America for twenty satisfying years.