Gunsmoke was born as a radio program in 1952 and was adapted for television three years later. It was television’s first “adult” Western. The only Western series on TV up to that point had been kiddie shoot-em-ups such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid which were mainly aimed at pre-adolescent boys who fantasized about “cowboys and Indians.” Gunsmoke wasn’t the only adult Western to infiltrate the airwaves during the fall of 1955. Two others, namely The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne, were also responsible for bringing respectability to the genre on television.
John Wayne not only endorsed Gunsmoke (see the video below of his personal introduction to the pilot) he also suggested James Arness to CBS.
The show ran for 20 years but had three distinct formats. The first 6 seasons were half-hour (in black & white) and seasons 7 through 11 were one hour (also in black and white) and finally seasons 12 though 20 were in color. James Arness (as Marshal Matt Dillon) and Milburn Stone (Doc Adams) were the only two actors to appear in all 20 seasons. Another notable actor, Burt Reynolds, was part of the show from 1962 to 1965 playing the “half-breed” blacksmith Quint Asper. Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) started the series as a saloon girl (code for prostitute) but then was quickly made into a co-owner of the saloon and while references were made to her occupation as not being “respectable,” the show deliberately (probably due to FCC standards or censorship) never made direct references to prostitution. There were also allusions that the Marshal and Miss Kitty were carrying a torch for one another.
The deputy, Chester (played by Dennis Weaver), was good-hearted but he was nervous and excitable, and perhaps just a bit dim-witted. Doc Adams was a cantankerous old geezer who usually scolded his gun-shot patients while still giving them excellent care. Most of the comic relief in the series came from the bickering between Doc and Chester.
What made Gunsmoke so refreshing and unique in the 1950s was its style. Not only was the show written with a high degree of intelligence and realism, but it also broke the rules. Matt didn’t always solve a case or actually capture or kill the villain. What is unusual (and also jarring to viewers unfamiliar with the show) is that many episodes of the series half-hour format seemed to have no conclusion. The story would often just abruptly end and leave questions unanswered as the characters just go on with their lives, much like real life.
But then there was also a repetitive theme, where many episodes would feature an outlaw villain who had a grievance against Matt and would threaten to kill him. The suspense would slowly build as Matt waited for the villain to make his move, but it almost always ended with some sort of gunplay and the villain dead on the street.