HomeEntertainment‘Gunsmoke’: How the Iconic Series Transitioned from Radio to TV

‘Gunsmoke’: How the Iconic Series Transitioned from Radio to TV

by Matthew Wilson
Photo credit: CBS via Getty Images

“Gunsmoke” may have hanged its hat on one of the longest live-action TV productions ever. But the iconic western was actually around a lot longer.

Like many shows of its time period, the western actually got its start in radio. In 1952, radio listeners were introduced to the adventures of Marshal Matt Dillon and an assortment of characters. The TV show based on the radio program wouldn’t air for another three years in 1955.

The genesis of the radio program can be traced back to the 1940s. The head of CBS absolutely loved the radio series “Philip Marlowe,” which was about a seasoned private-detective. But he wanted to transport a similar character back to the Old West and put scriptwriters at work on the idea.

Thus, Matt Dillon was born in the rough and perilous Wild West. Unlike other shows like the “Lone Ranger,” “Gunsmoke” featured realistic violence such as massacres, scalpings, and even drug addictions. Much of this was later toned down when the show was adapted for television.

In 1949, two versions of a pilot were recorded for a radio broadcast. Originally, “Straight Arrow” actor Howard Culver portrayed Dillon on “Gunsmoke.” But he had a contract dispute about appearing in another western. The project was shelved for three years until it was rediscovered. Producers cast William Conrad in the title role.

‘Gunsmoke’ Comes to TV

The project was an instant success, and it wasn’t long until there were talks of a TV show. At the time, the idea had many distractors, who feared that something lost by transitioning it to screen. Indeed, one of the show’s producers Norman Macdonnell fought against the network, but CBS won out in the end.

When transitioning to TV, the roles of the show were recast. Due to his weight and size, the network didn’t think Conrad could accurately portray Dillon on screen. Initially, they envisioned actor John Wayne stepping into the role. But Wayne was a big-time movie actor, unlikely to star in a TV production. The role ultimately went to James Arness, with Wayne offering his support for both the actor and the show. He recorded an introduction to the first episode urging viewers to tune.

Switching from radio to TV, “Gunsmoke” changed somewhat. For instance, Doc Adams became softer and warmer as a character. Additionally, Miss Kitty went from being a prostitute to the owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Fan favorites like Festus were later introduced on the show.

“Gunsmoke” was a success and ran for 20 years on the network. But the radio show also proved successful, running concurrently with the TV show until 1961.