‘Gunsmoke’: James Arness Refused Network’s Request to Make Show Longer

by Suzanne Halliburton
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The star of Gunsmoke decided there really could be too much of the terrific show.

James Arness, known to the audience as Marshal Matt Dillon, pushed back against CBS when the network wanted to extend the show. Network executives insisted on Gunsmoke going to a whopping 90 minutes. That basically was a movie with Matt Dillon, Festus, Doc and Miss Kitty, once a week.

A May 1966 article in the Bridgeport Post explained that Arness didn’t like the idea because it “would have meant shooting two units simultaneously and diluting the show’s quality.”

Plus, Arness wanted Gunsmoke to be authentic. He told the Bridgeport Post: “We’ve kept the show from becoming gaudy. Towns like Dodge City were drab and dirty. We’ve maintained that flavor.” 

In Arness’ mind, an hour was the perfect length because there would be enough time to tell all those quality Dodge City stories everyone loved.

At least one other Western dabbled in a 90-minute, weekly format. The site MeTV.com said that Wagon Train did its entire seventh season in 90-minute episodes. That was in 1964. For the eighth season, which was the final one for the series, Wagon Train went back to an hour.

Arness, at 6-7, literally loomed large over the Gunsmoke set. And he got his way in keeping the show to an hour.

Gunsmoke Quickly Changed With Times

Gunsmoke was a vintage example of how American entertainment quickly changed. The show started as a radio series in 1952. The show starred William Conrad as Matt Dillon. And it ran on radio until 1961.

But by 1955, there was a televised version of Gunsmoke. All the parts from the radio show were recast. The great John Wayne, America’s idea of the perfect cowboy, introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke.

Wayne said: “Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here, all kinds, and some of them have been Westerns. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight: a Western—a new television show called Gunsmoke.

“No, I’m not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it’s the best thing of its kind that’s come along, and I hope you’ll agree with me; it’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star, so you might as well get used to him, like you’ve had to get used to me! And now I’m proud to present my friend Jim Arness in Gunsmoke.”

Gunsmoke started in a 30-minute format. And in 1961, it expanded to an hour.

By 1966, about the time CBS pushed for 90 minutes, Gunsmoke went from black and white to color.

In all, the show ran for 20 years and 635 episodes. American TV fans got just enough.

Outsider.com