Gunsmoke, the TV western set in Dodge City, Kansas, ran for two decades. It proved to be the longest-running, live-action drama series of the 20th century.
The only show that eclipsed its record in TV history is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It surpassed Gunsmoke’s record in 2019.
And in its run, there were only two actors who started with the show in 1955 and ended with it in 1975. If you’re a fan of the show, who either watched it in its initial run or in reruns, you know the characters. They were Marshall Matt Dillon, the main character, and Doc Adams. They were mainstays in Dodge City.
James Arness played Matt Dillon. Milburn Stone played Doc. They were locked into TV pop culture. Kelsey Grammer has similar significance. He played the character Frasier for 20 years, but he did it on two different shows, Cheers, then the spinoff Frasier. Mariska Hargitay, who played Olivia Benson on Law & Order, SVU, now has passed all of them.
James Arness Was Perfect For Gunsmoke
James Arness, at 6-foot-7, towered over everyone, be they friends or criminals. He played an excellent lawman in a lawless kind of time. And he’s difficult to forget.
The Army drafted Arness in 1943. He wanted to be a pilot but was five inches too tall to fit in a cockpit. During the Battle of Anzio, he was the first soldier ordered off the boat. Because of his height, he could better tell how deep the water was. He was severely wounded in the battle and sent back to the United States. Arness was honorably discharged in 1945.
Arness and John Wayne were close friends. And it was Wayne who recommended Arness for the role of Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Arness beat out 25 other actors for the choice role. He joined a cast that also featured his sidekicks Festus (Ken Curtis) and Chester (Dennis Weaver). Miss Kitty, played by Amanda Blake, owned the Long Branch Saloon.
Doc was on every season, although he missed seven episodes because of illness.
Gunsmoke ranked as TV’s top-ranked show from 1957 to 1961. The ratings began dropping when the show switched to an hour-long format. CBS toyed with the idea of canceling the show in 1967. But the show was saved to run another eight years.
Arness died in 2011. He was 88. Peter Graves, Arness’ younger brother, also had an incredible TV run playing Jim Phelps in Mission Impossible. Graves died in 2010.
Milburn Stone was the oldest of the main characters. He died in 1980 and at age 76.
The show still lives on in other ways. If you ever said “Get the hell out of Dodge,” you’re quoting Gunsmoke.