When Gunsmoke premiered on September 10, 1955, who could have predicted it would run 20 seasons? Westerns became so ubiquitous on television in the late 1950s, it’s easy to overlook just how groundbreaking the show was.
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp had been the first Western written for adults on primetime television — it started just four days before Gunsmoke. Yep, Gunsmoke was pioneering mature cowboy entertainment. Prior to these shows, TV Westerns were adventures for boys like The Lone Ranger. The grittier stuff was in movie theaters.
But Gunsmoke was not new. For a few years, it had been running as a popular radio program.
It all began with “Matt Gets It.” Let’s take a closer look.
1. The cast watched the premiere at James Arness’ house.
As the star recalled in his memoir, James Arness: An Autobiography, “The cast assembled to watch the [first episode] at our home.” At the time, Arness was married to Virginia Chapman. He adopted her son, Craig, pictured here playing cowboy with his famous pa.
Image: AP Photo
2. John Wayne surprised Arness.
John Wayne was the first choice to play Marshal Matt Dillon on the small screen. Alas, the Duke did not want to commit to a weekly television series. The Hollywood icon recommended his friend, James Arness, for the role. He then surprised his pal with a special introduction to the premiere. “No, I’m not in it,” he told the audience. “I wish I were though, because I think it’s the best thing of its kind to come along.” (Remember, mature Westerns for adults were novel on primetime TV at the time.) “We were all caught by surprise and thrilled by the Duke’s words,” Arness wrote in his autobiography. The producers kept it a secret — even from Marshal Matt Dillon!
3. Billy the Kid makes a subtle cameo.
Look closely at the walls in Matt’s office. You can spot a reward poster for William M. Bonney. Legend knows him as Billy the Kid. But there’s a catch. Gunsmoke takes place in the 1870s. “Billy the Kid” was born Henry McCarty in 1859. McCarty did not start calling himself William H. Bonney until 1877. So it’s possible this is an anachronism.
4. The TV premiere was actually episode 129 of the radio program.
William Conrad played Marshal Matt Dillon on the radio airwaves for nine seasons. In fact, they overlapped. The Gunsmoke audio show was only in its fourth season when the TV series kicked off. “Matt Gets It” was a reboot — and a quick one, at that. It was an episode in season three, airing about a year prior to the television adaptation. Gunsmoke fans would have known the fate of Dan Grat.
Image: The Everett Collection
5. Arvo Ojala is the gunfighter in the opening credits.
Johnny Cash released his debut single in the summer of 1955. He later came to be known as “The Man in Black.” But there was another mysterious Man in Black making his debut in 1955 — the gunslinger in the opening credits of Gunsmoke! For years, Matt drew his gun at the bad guy. Who was he? A Finnish-American gun master named Arvo Ojala. The quick-draw specialist trained James Arness in gunfighting. He also trained Robert Culp, James Garner, Paul Newman… and Marilyn Monroe.
Image: The Everett Collection
6. The Long Branch was not the only saloon in town.
When people think “Gunsmoke” and “saloon,” the Long Branch immediately comes to mind. Miss Kitty Russell ran the establishment for years. Early on, there were competing watering holes. In this shot, you can see the Lady Gay Saloon. That was a real bar in Dodge City, Kansas. And it was not the only one…
7. Kitty had a history at Texas Trails.
Matt and Kitty also meet Dan Grat at the Texas Trails. Fans of the Gunsmoke radio program would have been familiar with the joint — Kitty worked there. It was insinuated that she was a prostitute, as well. The television show gave the character a much better business acumen.
8. Paul Richards would play more memorable characters on the show.
The shocking part of “Matt Gets It”? A no-good bandit guns down the Marshal! How about that for a premiere — the hero getting shot right off the bat? Bold stuff. Paul Richards played the villain Dan Grat in the premiere. He popped up on Gunsmoke three more times, twice as the title character! He was Neal Amber in “Mr. and Mrs. Amber,” about hardscrabble prairie folk. Later, he was the titular “Marshal” in “Joe Phy,” pictured here in the hat. Talk about a Matt Dillon nemesis!