Considering Gunsmoke was on the air for two decades, the history of the western is in many ways the early history of television. It began on the radio in 1952. For its first six seasons, from 1955 to 1961, the show ran as a half hour in black and white. In the fall of 1961, Gunsmoke stretched out into an hour-long drama. For season twelve, the western leaped into the world of color. By the time the series left the air in 1975, a generation had grown up with it. Dozens of celebrities had honed their chops as young guest stars on Gunsmoke.We picked out a six-shooter of classic episodes to keep an eye peeled for.
1. “Quint Asper Comes Home”
Season 8, Episode 3
In 1960, Elvis Presley starred in Flaming Star, which cast the hunka hunka burning love as a half-native-half-Texan rancher. Gunsmoke was mining that same vein of beefcake when it cast Southern man Burt Reynolds to play Quint Asper in 1962. In this, his first appearance as a regular, Reynold’s character is torn between the two sides of his heritage.
2. “Us Haggens”
Season 8, Episode 12
Reynolds had a relatively brief stay in Dodge — he left Gunsmoke in 1965. As the beloved Festus, on the other hand, Ken Curtis served as Marshal Dillon’s deputy for 11 seasons, up until the very end. This episode marks the debut of Festus, who enlists Dillon to help track down the killer of his twin Fergus.
3. “The Renegades”
Season 8 Episode 18
Though Quint Asper was a regular face around Dodge by this point, it was here that the character truly got a chance to flex his muscle. Reynolds blossoms into an action star here, as he rides shotgun on a stagecoach for a dangerous mission. It’s easy to see how Quint could have spun off into a Rowdy Yates–like lead in his own western.
4. “Prairie Wolfer”
Season 9, Episode 16
Festus finally returned to Gunsmoke as a regular character with this gripping tale of wolf hunting. Those who prefer a clean-shaven face take note: Ken Curtis was not yet sporting his trademark stubble. This episode is not to be confused with the “Prairie Wolfer” of colorful season thirteen. That one featured Jon Voight.
5. “Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood”
Season 11, Episode 3
After the departure of Reynolds, Gunsmoke found itself needing a younger ladies man. Enter Roger Ewing as Thaddeus Greenwood. The blonde California native was perfectly cast as a corn-fed boy from Oklahoma. He previously appeared on Gunsmoke as another character, Ben Lukens, in season ten. For thirty six episodes, Thad served alongside Dillon. Ewing remains one of the few living regular cast members of this titanic television series (another being Reynolds, of course).
6. “Ten Little Indians”
Season 11, Episode 4
Quentin Tarantino cited a fistful of old westerns as inspiration for The Hateful Eight, a ragtag cast of characters stuck together and at each other’s throats. This episode is another fine example of such a western tale, inspired by an Agatha Christie novel. It’s kill or be killed in this fun mix of contract killers and shoot-outs.