Q: I recently saw an old “Gunsmoke” movie in which Matt Dillon had a daughter. Who in the world was the mother? I don’t remember him even kissing anyone during the series. Herb Heft A: You almost have to feel sorry for ol’ Matt, don’t you? I mean, here he was, this 6-foot-7 strapping hunk of a man, and yet for 18 years the Old West’s most eligible town marshal didn’t get so much as to hold hands with or enjoy even a peck on the cheek from Miss Kitty or any other purty gal lookin’ for someone to giddy-up with. I know some Western fans don’t like to see their heroes get all kissy-face, but if I had been James Arness, I may have sued my writers. All that, however, finally changed — at least, for a night — on Sept. 24, 1973, the third week of the series’ second-last season. In an episode entitled “Matt’s Love Story,” our intrepid hero is shot by a fugitive he is chasing and left for dead. But not wanting the show to end prematurely, Matt’s horse intelligently finds its way to the farm of a young woman named Mike Yardner, who, with the help of her dog, finds Matt and manages to haul him back to the old homestead to nurse him back to health.
Now you may be thinking that Mike is an odd name for a Western lady, but in this case it apparently was taken straight from real life. Yardner was played by none other than Michael Learned, who, at the same time, was entering her second season as mom Olivia on “The Waltons.” (I wonder if John-Boy knew she was cheating on John-Man?) But I digress. As the plot thickens, Matt has another problem besides his physical wounds — he can’t remember his past. At the same time, the fugitive — Les Dean (played by well-known character actor Victor French) — urges Yardner’s neighbor to drive her out of her home over water rights. “I don’t like killings, but I’ve been around them,” the neighbor says menacingly. Is this curtains for Matt? Will a young widow be forced to find another little house on the prairie? Of course not. When Dean visits Mike and the amnesia-befuddled Matt to deliver his threat, he suddenly changes his mind and returns the deposit to the neighbor. And since the writers had only 50 minutes to play with, Matt miraculously regains his memory and heads back to Dodge City alone after nailing his first and only kiss in 20 years as one of TV’s most beloved characters. As it turned out, of course, they shared a lot more than just a kiss during those chilly nights in the old farm cabin. Seventeen years later, Dillon finally learns the true ramifications of his one-week stand with Mike in the 1990 made-for-TV movie “Gunsmoke II: The Last Apache.”
“It opens with Matt traveling somewhere in the Far West,” Arness told the Associated Press at the time. “He gets a letter from Mike asking him to come to her ranch. When he gets there, he finds out about his daughter, who has just been taken captive by the Apaches.” Now, it’s up to Dillon to rescue the daughter he never knew he had and return her to her mother, played again by the Emmy-winning Learned. And although Learned faded from the scene, it wasn’t the last we saw of the father-daughter duo. Played by Amy Stock-Poyton (now Amy Stoch), Beth would turn up in the final three Gunsmoke movies: 1992’s “To the Last Man,” 1993’s “The Long Ride” and 1994’s “One Man’s Justice,” by which time she had married a man named Readon. “Justice” would be Arness’ final screen appearance even though he did not die until 2011 at age 88. Ironically, it aired the night before the death of actor William Conrad. Although best known for his work in such shows as “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fatman,” Conrad was the original Matt Dillon on the “Gunsmoke” radio series, which ran from 1952 to 1961 and whose scripts and dialogue often were adapted into TV episodes. And although he did not have the physique for the TV role, Conrad did direct two episodes. One final bit of Gunsmoke trivia you might find interesting: A month after Arness enjoyed his extracurricular activities, Amanda Blake got equal time. In “Kitty’s Love Affair” on Oct. 22, 1973, Matt and Kitty get on a stage for St. Louis, of all places, but Matt is forced to return to Dodge on business. Miffed, the owner of the Long Branch Saloon continues on her own, only to be saved by handsome gunslinger Will Stambridge (Richard Kiley). When a smitten Stambridge later rolls into Dodge to do some serious courting, Kitty must decide between him and her 18-year seemingly platonic affair with Matt. I guess we all know her decision.