When the original Gunsmoke aired on September 10, 1955, I didn’t watch the program. I was too young anyway to appreciate the humanity and the humor of the program. The production ran for twenty seasons. The show told the story of the wild west as experienced in and around Dodge City, Kansas following the Civil War. The stories featured the town marshall, his sidekick, the local doctor, and a saloon gal. They were righteous. They did their jobs against all odds because, well . . . that’s what people are supposed to do.
As an adult with cable-TV playing reruns almost every day, I was able to sit back and enjoy the productions. It took a while for the actors to take a hold of their roles and make them their own. The show ran for twenty years, but it’s the early half-hour productions in black and white that are the best. Not counting the asexual lives of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty, the writing was excellent and each episode became a morality play illustrating how people should be treated. The longer telecasts in color had so many holes in the plots, they are not watching except to see the guest stars of the day. To watch almost any episode is to see stars and the current character actors of the day.
My favorite story was about the farmer who wouldn’t fight back. The neighbor and his hired hands harassed the farmer and his wife. The neighbor wanted the property. Everyone knew what was going on, but there was never any proof. The neighbor and a hired hand would come around after dark and shoot into the farmer’s home as they rode round and round the house. The couple took to the floor to protect themselves. Finally, the farmer put in a clothes line for his wife and built it well off the ground so the sheets wouldn’t drag in the dirt. The neighbor and his buddy came shooting that night and rode around the house . . . once. The next morning the farmer brought the bodies into town. That was a beautiful illustration of comeuppance.
If you watch these early episodes you’ll see the character Chester Goode. Chester had a stiff-legged limp from a wound in the War Between the State. Dennis Weaver owned that role. I’ve seen him come down a steep gully mostly hopping on this good leg. He must have been in fantastic physical condition, even though Weaver sometimes forgot to limp and sometimes it was one leg or the other.
I like Dennis Weaver’s story of how he was hired for the role of Chester. He was disappointed he wasn’t reading for the part of Marshall Dillon. When he was asked to read the part of Chester he simply gave a straight read. He could tell that his interpretation wasn’t winning anyone over and he would have to keep delivering flowers as his day job. He knew he had to do something. For some reason a classmate of his from high school popped into mind. The kid had a twang and talked like a hick. Weaver asked to read the part again. He excused himself to the hallway for a few minutes and rehearsed. When he returned, Gunsmoke had their sidekick for Matt Dillon.
James Arness played the part of Marshal Matt Dillon. Arness was actually walking wounded from machine gun fire (Bronze Star & Purple Heart) in the Anzio landing in Italy during World War II. Dillon believed in being fair to Native Americans and protective of women and children . . . and others. Milburn Stone played the part of “Doc.” It didn’t matter who you were to Doc. If you were hurt, he would help heal you. Miss Kitty ran the Longbranch saloon. She defended and sheltered the women who worked for her and she wouldn’t hire any card dealer who was a cheat. These people had their code. They believed in their code and were implacable as they lived up to it.
Humor was supplied by interaction between the principles. Matt would complain about Chester’s coffee. Chester quite often had to borrow money from Doc. Doc was constantly ribbed by Matt for not doing anything. Doc would complain that Matt sat around napping with Chester outside the office/jail. Quite often the three of them would finish off the day with a beer at the Longbranch with Kitty. Eventually, Dennis Weaver, the only Gunsmoke actor to win an Emmy (1959) for his acting on the show, left for other opportunities. A new sidekick part was written in: Festus Haggen played by smooth voiced Ken Curtis, who sang with the Sons of the Pioneers and had many roles in feature films with John Wayne and John Ford. Curtis also took Frank Sinatra’s place with the Tommy Dorsey band in the 1940s when “Old Blue Eyes” went out on his own. My son, Del gave me an autographed photograph of Festus for Christmas one year. It hangs in our master bathroom.
My favorite characters were Chester and Festus. Most of the good lines come from them.
“You look like the dogs had you under the house.”
“Why I’m so hungry, my stomach is growing teeth.”
“Softer than a pocketful of baby mice.”
“When you learn a thing a day you store up smart.”
“No more chance than a grass hopper in a hen house.”
“Safer than chitlins on a city folk’s supper plate.”
“Hotter than a jug full of red ants.”
Generally, you’ll find Gunsmoke on cable almost everyday. Netflix has 174 episodes available for viewing. Get the Hell out of Dodge, and enjoy yourself as you review your own personal code of life.