Alright, let’s get the Hell into Dodge. Mount your horses and get ready for a wild ride because today we’re revisiting Gunsmoke, the sweeping western drama that’s been called America’s own Iliad and the Odyssey. For over a decade, Saturday evenings were dedicated entirely to Gunsmoke, which started out as a radio show.
The TV version was slated to be canceled in 1967 but when President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly told CBS he was a fan, they had to reevaluate. Moving the show from Saturdays to Mondays had adverse effects for The Skipper and Company, canceling Gilligan’s Island in the process. Let’s take a look back at the cast of Gunsmoke, then and now.
James Arness (Marshall Matt Dillon)
Hold it, it’s time to talk about The Marshall of Dodge City, Matt Dillon, Justice incarnate. He certainly evolved throughout Gunsmoke, as at first, Arness based The Marshall off his radio counterpart, but since Gunsmoke was America’s longest-running action show until Law and Order, Arness had PLENTY of time to mold his character into his own. Marshall Dillon understood his job would involve violence and grief, but never lost his compassion and fairness. But even after he learned to find peaceful answers, Dillon did what was necessary. For this, he became relatable AND admirable. Arness himself would do whatever it took to get to his goal! First, after recovering from serious injuries he obtained overseas in WWII, he hitchhiked his way to California and began scoping out agencies and casting calls.
He quickly became a staple of the western genre and became great friends with John Wayne himself. In fact, Wayne recommended Arness personally for the role of Dillon. Most of us know him best as the Dodge City Marshall. But Europeans recognize Arness first as the character Zeb in How the West Was Won. It became something of a cult classic across western Europe.
A transplant from Minnesota, Arness adapted to California life swimmingly, his favorite hobby became surfing. Beach-goers could spot the 6’1″ Marshall Matt Dillon hanging up his holsters and enjoying some tubular waves. Arness had the unique pleasure of playing Marshall Dillon in five separate decades: ’55 to ’75 for the weekly series and reprising the role for TV Movies in the ’80s and ’90s. All that hard work earned him a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, which now honors the late legend who passed in 2011.
Dennis Weaver (Chester Goode)
Every Marshall needs a right-hand man, and Matt Dillon could count on Chester Goode. A devoted friend and partner, Weaver’s Chester walked with a limp. Why? Because Weaver looked too much like a lead character, even next to James Arness. Rumor has it that they would place a rock in his boot making his limp more authentic. Ouch.
Dennis Weaver stayed with the show for nine years before he started feeling chafed. Weaver worried he’d never get away from the character. And in 1964 he finally shed the limp and went from a sidekick to a leading man, in NBC’s Kentucky Jones. The show didn’t last long, but it gave Weaver a taste of success and independence he’d thirsted for. Before and after retirement, Weaver was an environmentalist. He promoted care for the ecosystem for decades until his death in 2006.
Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty Russell)
A lot of business goes down at the saloon and that’s where Miss Kitty Russell comes in. For almost two decades, Blake played everyone’s favorite sassy redhead with a heart of gold. Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon were part of one of the first and longest-running “will they / won’t they” relationships to the point the show made fun of it. Amanda Blake was so iconic that the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum inducted her into the Hall of Great Western Performers.
Her personal life was a bit less of a steady success story. She was married four times, But while married to her third husband, our saloon proprietress became famous for, what else, being one of the first to successfully raise cheetahs in captivity. In fact, Blake entered semi-retirement early to focus on animal welfare. Blake’s own health took a turn for the worse and she died in 1989 when she was just 60 years old.
Milburn Stone (Doc Adams)
The doctor is in the house! Doc. Adams, specifically. Someone has to patch up our rugged heroes after all the scraps they have to settle (or start). Doc was a testy curmudgeon, who stayed on the show for most of its duration. Stone comes from a whole family of artists: his cousin is character actress Madge Blake who played Mrs. Cooper in nearly 100 episodes of Adam West’s Batman, and his brother Joe actually wrote two episodes of Gunsmoke, Baker’s Dozen in ‘67 and The Fugitives in ‘72.
Now try to picture Doc in a barbershop quartet because that’s exactly where Stone started off before heading to Broadway. Gunsmoke fame came very late in his career – and life – so Stone wrestled hard with CBS to make sure he received royalties. All that insisting paid off; Stone stuck with the show until it ended in ‘75, after which he was finally able to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Although it is sad to say it lasted only 5 years before Stone died at 70. That’s why Doc was not present in any of the Gunsmoke reunion films.
Ken Curtis (Festus Haggen)
Festus Haggen served as a structural replacement for the departure of Chester Goode. Haggen brought something else to the deputy job: friendship and humor. The tough yet bumbling companion provided great amusement with his verbal feuds with Doc Adams. You ole Scudder! Curtis and Arness had plenty of time to bond early on, as Curtis had a few different roles in Gunsmoke before settling into Haggen permanently in season 8. Out of the Marshall’s five deputies, Festus held the title the longest, with a whopping 11 years under his floppy hat.
After Gunsmoke, Curtis loaded up some more westerns, including 1983’s Sam Elliott led The Yellow Rose. If you haven’t seen that nighttime soap, check it out, it’s got one heck of a cast. He continued acting until he died at 74 years old in 1991, but his image lives on in a Festus Haggen statue in Clovis, California, where Curtis spent his later years.
Buck Taylor (Newly O’Brien)
There are few people whose bad side I never want to see less than Newly O’Brien. He wasn’t just a deputy, he was once a gunsmith. The man knew a thing or two or ten about firearms. Buck Taylor was a frequenter of westers, but Dallas fans will also recognize him as Detective Bussey. In 1987, he returned to Dodge – literally – in Gunsmoke… Return to Dodge.
Only this time, HE played the city’s Marshall. What a promotion! But this rugged gunsmith-turned-deputy-turned-marshall has a soft side too. In fact, he paints! He’s been selling his work since 1993. He’s now 83 years old.
Glenn Strange (Sam Noonan)
Time to kick your feet up after a hard day in Dodge. Who better to see on the other side of the bar than, Sam Noonan, resident bartender? Level-headed Sam walked into the bar first in Season 6 and was on the show until his death in 1973. When you’re dealing with gunfights and bar brawls, you need a solid voice of reason, and that was definitely Sam, who’s seen quite a bit. That made Strange perfect for the role. He was great as the murderous Butch Cavendish in The Lone Ranger.
Throughout his career, Strange appeared in over 300 projects, But his biggest role besides Gunsmoke was monstrous. Strange’s facial features and towering 6 ft 5-inch height made him the PERFECT Frankenstein’s monster. Strange received coaching from horror movie icon Boris Karloff himself. The duo became so well-known that when Karloff died, The New York Times put a picture of Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster instead of Karloff. Oops, but a nice accidental tribute. Even though Strange died in 1973, his Gunsmoke co-star Buck Taylor actually named his son after him to keep his memory living. That’s when cast really becomes family.
Burt Reynolds (Quint Aspen)
We can’t leave off Burt who played Quint Aspen, the half-breed blacksmith who could always win a fight, even without a pistol. He was part of the Dodge Community for Season 8-10 and although you don’t need any reminder, Burt was a standout in roles from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance. Reynolds passed away in 2018 at the age of 82.
This has been quite the return to Dodge. There’s no forgetting the thrilling shootouts, tense chats, and amazing relationships we got to form thanks to this quintessential western. Who was your favorite character from this enduring show? Do you remember a specific episode that you loved?