‘Gunsmoke’ Star Milburn Stone Opened Up About Getting Mistaken for Characters

by Allison Hambrick

“Gunsmoke” actor Milburn Stone discussed how fans used to react to seeing the stars in public, often expecting to meet their onscreen personas. The actor explained that it didn’t bother him because it simply meant people were enjoying the show.

“Audiences regard us as old friends,” explained Stone. “Because of the intimacy of the TV show. They nearly always call us by our stage names: Doc, Chester, Kitty. And more than likely their questions-and there are plenty of them-will be about the TV characters, not about us actors who play them.”

Stone described the kinds of questions he got: “Does Kitty really love Matt? When will Kitty marry Matt? Is Chester’s leg really stiff? How did he get that limp? How does Chester make his coffee? And so on.”

Additionally, Stone explained that he played to the crowd. If people want to meet the characters, you have to be in character.

“I have to be careful,” he continued. “If anybody asks me how’s Chester, I may reply, ‘Oh, he’s fine.’ They don’t like that. Chester and I are supposed to be arguing all the time.”

‘Gunsmoke’ Star Displeased With Change in Producers

Stone wasn’t always so accommodating. When it came to network interference, he had little patience. In particular, he was upset when CBS unceremoniously fired Norman Macdonnell.

“I wouldn’t presume to know how to run a network, or be the producer of a show, but I do know the flavor of Gunsmoke,” said Stone. “You can detect the changes.”

Macdonnell co-created the series along with writer John Meston. He was replaced by Philip Leacock, a British director, who had little experience in television.

“We were all stunned,” Stone said. “They called Norm over to CBS at 6 o’clock one evening and told him the news… And the scripts coming through now are written by people who don’t understand the show at all.”

The two also disagreed over some of the creative decisions that Leacock made. For example, Stone complained: “We’re also getting into something else that I certainly don’t agree with. They’re bringing in guest stars.”

While Leacock felt it was “awfully good for us to have a good outside actor give [them] a breath,” Stone disagreed. The producer thought the “competition” was good for the series regulars. After all, vying for screen time against more popular guest stars surely would up their game, right?

“We’re Matt, Kitty, Doc and Festus,” Stone responded. “We have no other identity. A Jean Arthur, a James Whitmore, a Betty Hutton are one-shots. Their fans will tune in, but not necessarily again.”

Stone made a solid point. You’re not going to sustain an audience on flashy guest stars, but someone who watches for the main cast will tune back in next week.