- Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 June 2011 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 08 June 2011 00:00
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Like most boys in the early 1960s I loved westerns. And, oh by the way, at age 52, I still do. But in days gone by my affection for the genre was rather intense. I was very proud of my toy six shooter and its accompanying Winchester rifle. I wore my cowboy hat everywhere and I had a host of “Johnny West” action figures. I was hooked and fortunately the major television networks were ready to comply. In 1965, while Peyton Place may have brought in record audiences, it was the TV western that dominated network programming. And at the top of the list, as something of the jewel of the TV westerns of the era, there was Gunsmoke.
It starred a strong-willed, straight-talking sheriff named Matt Dillon, his love interest, but not quite love interest, Kitty, the always wise “Doc,” and of
course, the lovable deputy, Festus. They were a TV team. A group of characters you were always pleased to welcome into your home and no Sunday evening, or so it seemed 40 years ago, was complete without Gunsmoke.
Last week, the last of this beloved band of players, James Arness, who played the lead character, Sheriff Matt Dillon, died at the age of 88. Arness played the roll from 1955, when the show after years on radio came to TV until it went off the air in 1975. It’s been said that it’s tied with Law and Order as the longest running drama in television history. But even that’s open to argument. Law and Order has had a host of characters and actors over its 20-year run. Gunsmoke, with one exception, stuck with the same core team for the entire duration of the series. Either way it has earned its place in the history of entertainment.
James Arness, one of Hollywood’s tallest actors, didn’t fit the mold of a flamboyant Hollywood actor. When you got down to it the reports of his death have been surprisingly dull. He was a nice guy, well respected, who played a character, that even today, almost 40 years after the show went off the air, everyone recognizes. I can still hear the resonant tone of the announcer in the opening credits saying, “With James Arness as Matt Dillon.”
Even those who looked down their noses at the western genre admitted that Gunsmoke was unusually well written and acted. But, that said, making the transition to television didn’t go smoothly. With the move to TV, the producers, now that people could see their characters, wanted lots of action, and so, Matt Dillon began life on the little screen as a shoot ’em up sheriff.
However, this approach didn’t go over as well with audiences as the networks expected. What had made Matt Dillon so popular on radio, and what would make him so beloved on TV wasn’t only his action hero persona, but also the common sense and steady way he handled a tough situation. That was the Matt Dillon audiences wanted to see. So, in rather short order the stories got more complex, the dialog more substantive, and Matt Dillon, while still a steady hand with his six-shooter, became just a bit more peaceful.
The shows, and there were hundreds, covered an amazing range of stories and situations. But that was the remarkable thing about the western. Any story or so it seemed, drama, action adventure, comedy, romance, or tragedy could be made to fit into a western setting. There was always conflict and always moral dilemmas. And that’s the ground Gunsmoke, with its trusted band of players, covered for 20 years.
Matt, Kitty, Festus, and Doc, are all gone now. And Gunsmoke, especially with the death of James Arness, has faded into history. Also, it’s likely, that with it, so has the western genre. There are no westerns on TV, save for re-runs. And westerns haven’t been popular at the box office for years now. But, revivals do happen. The old west, with its vast tapestry of situations, characters and story lines, may be out of favor now, but for future writers and producers — who knows? It may prove too much to resist. Or, at least I hope so.