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When Producers Rejected Her, Amanda Blake Got Creative To Secure ‘Gunsmoke’ Role

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When Amanda Blake landed the role of Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke, she secured her place in the cultural zeitgeist of a nation. In terms of her television career, it would be a dominating presence in her filmography and Blake has long felt synonymous with the saloon owner. But the odds were actually stacked heavily against Blake, to the point where she very nearly did not get the role, which drove her to one stubborn tactic.

Blake, who passed away in ‘89 at the age of 60 from AIDS-related pneumonia, started her acting career on the big screen with 1950’s Stars in My Crown. Most of her gigs were actual named characters, though there were several uncredited roles in the early years, like in China Corsair, Never Trust a Gambler, Criminal Lawyer; in the latter two, she was The Redhead at Police Station and Receptionist. But this humble start wasn’t even her biggest stumbling block.

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Amanda Blake was not early in the running to play Kitty Russell on ‘Gunsmoke’

For reason she never learned, the network did not want to audition her / Mario Casilli/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

Before riding off into the sunset of radio and into the rodeo of the small screen, Gunsmoke proved itself as a unique Western program on the airwaves, one that did not pull its emotional punches. Sometimes the good guys didn’t win; they got there just too late, or they saved the day but the scars endured. So, when it came time to cast the role of Miss Kitty Russell, the prominent other half of the show, Blake was among many other hopefuls.

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RELATED: Why Amanda Blake Kept Choking On Her Lines In ‘Gunsmoke: Return To Dodge’

Except the studio already had other plans. For one thing, Polly Bond was their first choice to play Kitty. However, she actually rejected the part because the salary was too big. That’s right; the job would have paid her too well. She was early into her relationship with Tommy Bond, who as a child actor had been Butch in The Little Rascals. He bowed out of acting and instead was doing production at a local TV station. Polly worried that playing Kitty would put her salary astronomically above Tommy’s, to the point it would strain their relationship.

Blake got creative and stayed determined to secure the role

Amanda Blake sat outside the offices until they let her try out for the role of Miss Kitty Russell / Everett Collection

Polly bowed out of the role – and went on to enjoy 54 years of marriage with Tommy. That was a huge obstacle out of the way. But the battle wasn’t over yet. From Blake’s own testimony in Gunsmoke: An American Institution: Celebrating 50 Years of Television’s Best Western by Ben Constello, we know that CBS did not want to audition her. Blake said she did not know the studio’s reason for this stance, but she was just as “adamant” to be seen.

Her competition got an audience. After all, she acknowledged, “Everybody in town wanted to play Kitty, the original ‘wh—e with a heart of gold.’ I think every actress in Hollywood, even a few drag queens in the right age range, tested for the part.”

They cast Matt Dillon based on the actor’s chemistry with Blake / Everett Collection

So, she sat outside the Gunsmoke casting office. And sat. And sat. On and on this went until they couldn’t ignore her any longer. Unsurprisingly, Blake proved she was worth the time and that she was perfect to play Kitty. So perfect, in fact, that when it was time to cast U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, they based that casting decision around the actor’s compatibility with her. At one point, Denver Pyle and John Pickard were top contenders but because they did not have the right chemistry with Blake, they didn’t make the cut. That honor went to James Arness and the rest is history.

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