From the "Didja Know...?" Dept.

Trivia from a veritable cesspool of human knowledge


by Carlton Donaghe

Didja know that the longest-running, scripted dramatic show in television history was the western Gunsmoke?
It actually started as a radio show, created to be an adult western in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe, starring William Conrad and Mayberry’s Floyd the Barber.
It began on CBS television in the 1955-56 season, a black & white half-hour western drama, as adult as the strict censorship of the time would allow it to be, oftentimes tackling controversial subjects in the context of its Old West setting.  It starred 6’7” WWII veteran James Arness as the physically imposing US Marshall Matt Dillon, the man who single-handedly brought law and order to Dodge City, Kansas—the end point of the cattle drives up from Texas, where cowboy’s would blow their hard-earned wages on whiskey and women, where gamblers and drifters would come to make their living in a less-than-honest manner.  His sidekick, the amiable Chester, was played by Dennis Weaver, who limped along with one stiff leg and used both suspenders and a belt to keep his pants up.  The acerbic Doc Adams was played by Milburne Stone, and co-owner of the Longbranch Saloon, Miss Kitty Russell, was played by a young redhead named Amanda Blake.  Other citizens of the town were played by cast regulars.
For the first five years, there were 39 half-hour episodes per season (compared to 22 episodes per season, or less, today).  In the sixth season, there were 38.  It became one of the highest-rated shows on television.
In the seventh season, Gunsmoke became an hour-long show, with 34 episodes.  Glenn Strange joined the cast as background character Sam the Bartender, at the Longbranch.  In season seven, the number of episodes went back up to 38 (imagine 38 weeks of original episodes!) and the series added Burt Reynolds to the cast as half-breed Indian Quint Asper, who eventually became the town blacksmith.  Season seven also added Ken Curtis as the recurring illiterate hillbilly, Festus, and James Nusser as the town drunk, Louis Pheeters, each with his own debut episode.
Season nine, which ran for 36 episodes, was the last for Dennis Weaver’s character, Chester, who was slowly replaced by Ken Curtis’ Festus.  The ninth season also featured the series’ first-ever two-part episode, “Extradition.”  Season ten also ran 36 episodes.  In season eleven, the number of episodes dropped to 32, and featured the series’ second two-part episode, “The Raid.”  The cast lost Burt Reynolds (who went on to his own TV show, Hawk) and his character Quint Asper, but gained young Thad Greenwood, played by Roger Ewing.
Eleven seasons is a long run for a TV show.  Most shows are played out by that time.  By 1966, Gunsmoke had been on the air for eleven years, and the network canceled it.
When word that the TV show had ended was reported in the national magazine TV Guide, and in newspapers across the country, letters of protest flooded the CBS network.  Even the wife of the company’s own Chief Executive, William Paley, demanded the show return.
For it’s twelfth season on the air, starring Roger Ewing as Thad, Ken Curtis as Festus, Milburne Stone as Dock, Amanda Blake as Kitty (by now full owner of the Longbranch), and James Arness as US Marshall Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke became a full-color TV show, with 29 one hour episodes, including the third two-part episode, “Nitro!”
In season 13, CBS moved the show to Monday nights, and Gunsmoke returned to the top ten.  Buck Taylor, as jack of all-trades Newly O’Brien, replaced Roger Ewing’s Thad.  There were 25 episodes, including the fourth two-parter, “Vengeance.”  In seasons 14 and 15, there were 26 episodes.  Season 16 had only 24 episodes, but included the fifth and sixth two part episodes—“Snow Train” and the poignant “Pike,” which introduced the character Dirty Sally, who returned for an episode in the next season, and was later spun-off into her own TV series.
Season 17, which had an ailing Milburne Stone’s character, Doc Adams, temporarily replaced by actor Pat Hingle, featured the series seventh two-part episode, “Waste,” and also its only three-part episode, “Gold Train: The Bullet,” in which Doc Adams returns just in time to save a critically wounded Marshall Dillon.  Season 18, in 1972, began with the epic two-part episode, “The River.”  Season 19 featured two 2-part episodes, “Women for Sale” (with a narrative introduction by radio’s Marshall Dillon, William Conrad) and “A Game of Death... an Act of Love.”  This season also featured both “Kitty’s Love Affair,” and “Matt’s Love Story,” which starred Michael Learned as the woman who would later be revealed (in a TV-movie) to have borne Matt’s child, something never seen on the original TV series.
One of the series three longest-running characters, Amanda Blake as Longbranch owner Kitty Russell, did not return for the twentieth season in 1974, she was replaced by actress Fran Ryan, as the new owner of the Longbranch.  But the last season included two more 2-part episodes, “The Guns of Cibola Blanca,” and “Island in the Desert.”  This season also featured Fran Ryan and Henry Morgan in a comedy episode, “The Wiving,” which spawned a sequel episode, “Brides & Grooms.”
After 20 years and 635 episodes, the series was unceremoniously canceled in 1975, without an episode to bring the show to an end.  But the series was not finished:  Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon, was revived as a TV-movie in 1987, followed by four others, from 1990 to 1994.  It remains, to this day, the longest-running scripted drama in television history.  NBC’s Law & Order also ran for 20 years, but it had fewer episodes per season, and did not feature the same cast throughout.

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