It was on this day in 1955 that television’s great distance champion first aired—Gunsmoke. It still stands as the longest running prime time drama series and it clocked in with a fairly amazing 20-year run from 1955-1975. Okay, we know that NBC’s Law & Order also served up 20 years of shows, but Gunsmoke has Law & Order beat in terms of total episodes produced, 635 to 456. And, yes, fans of The Simpsons, we hear you too. The show is just about to kick off its 26th season, and has aired 552 episodes to date. But we’re talking prime time drama.
Gunsmoke began its life on the CBS radio network, where it ran for nearly a decade (1952-1961) with a total of 432 episodes produced. It starred the booming-voiced William Conrad, whose physical largesse might have been a factor in his not getting the roll of Marshal Matt Dillon when the show was brought to CBS Television in 1955 (it’s said that Raymond Burr was also considered for the role, but his size was thought to be troublesome as well). The roll of course went to the lanky James Arness. William Conrad’s physical stature worked to his advantage in his role in Cannon—you can’t imagine a skinny Frank Cannon, can you? The radio voice of Doc Charles Adams was Howard McNear, who went on to play Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show.
As we’ve mentioned before, the Internet Archive site archive.org is one of our favorite sites. All manner of audio and visual ephemera is contained within its seemingly endless cyber walls. Gunsmoke is considered to be one of the best of the old time radio shows that ever was, and if you want a reminder or a first time listen, the site has episodes for listening or download. Check them out here. And then browse through the site and see where it takes you!
Gunsmoke stood out from its competition (and we’re talking the heady days of the TV western here—in 1959 there were nearly 30 prime time westerns airing on network television!) by delivering more adult stories with a strong, thoughtful male lead, who though he was 𝕒𝕣𝕞𝕖𝕕, reached for his 𝕘𝕦𝕟 only as a last resort.
James Arness (you knew that his real life brother was Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves, right?) was with the show for its entire run, as was Milburn Stone in the role of Doc. Amanda Blake portrayed saloon-𝕜𝕖𝕖𝕡𝕖𝕣 Miss Kitty until 1974. The show was abruptly cancelled by CBS after its 1975 season, taking the cast and crew by surprise and as a result, you’ll find no final ‘wrap up’ episode of the show, which is unfortunate. A number of TV movies and reunions followed through the years, the last one (Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice) arriving as recently as 1994. That’s twenty years ago—exactly as long as the original series ran.
There are other MeTV shows that put in a decade/plus of service: Bonanza ran for 14 seasons; Hawaii Five-O put in 12; Cheers, M*A*S*H and Make Room For Daddy each lasted 11; 10 for I Love Lucy. But that double decade mark is pretty elusive. So we offer a respectful tip of the 10-gallon hat to Gunsmoke, our tough-to-beat MeTV episode champ. Tune in Monday through Saturday at 1 PM/ 12 C and watch one of the most warmly remembered TV shows of all time.