Debut of Launches the Adult Western Drama

Introduced as the first of the “adult” Westerns on television, Gunsmoke achieved unprecedented success, becoming the longest-running network dramatic show with continuing characters and setting the standard for the most popular television genre of the late 1950’s.

Summary of Event

Early television Westerns were patterned much like those shown in the theaters as matinees and were primarily children’s shows that emphasized fantasy. Since it was expected that these shows would not hold any appeal for adults, few were broadcast during prime-time hours. [kw]Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama (Sept. 10, 1955)
[kw]Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama, Debut of (Sept. 10, 1955)
[kw]Western Drama, Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult (Sept. 10, 1955)
Gunsmoke (television program)
Westerns (television)
Gunsmoke (television program)
Westerns (television)
[g]North America;Sept. 10, 1955: Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama[04960]
[g]United States;Sept. 10, 1955: Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama[04960]
[c]Radio and television;Sept. 10, 1955: Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama[04960]
Arness, James
Stone, Milburn
Blake, Amanda
Weaver, Dennis
Reynolds, Burt
Curtis, Ken

By the mid-1950’s, however, a craze for Westerns began to sweep the country, a trend made clear by the 1954 prime-time success of a series of Walt Disney-produced made-for-television films about frontier hero Davy Crockett. The networks soon decided that Westerns that appealed to an adult audience could be successful during adult viewing hours. The result was that three Westerns for prime-time showing made their debut in the fall of 1955: Frontier on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Cheyenne on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and Gunsmoke on the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;Westerns (CBS).

The first telecast of Gunsmoke took place on September 10, 1955. By the time of the last original airing in 1975, the series had run for twenty years, longer than any other series that contained the same characters had run in the history of television.

Gunsmoke (radio program)
Television;relationship to radio originated as a radio program in 1952, with William Conrad Conrad, William playing the role of Matt Dillon. When CBS decided to air a Western that would appeal to adult viewers, the show was a logical choice. Since the stocky Conrad did not fit any stereotype for a Western marshal, the first choice of the show’s producers for the television role was Hollywood star John Wayne Wayne, John . Wayne, however, did not want to commit himself to a weekly television series, and instead suggested a friend of his, James Arness, for the part.

Arness was an authentic hero who had been wounded during the fighting around Anzio in World War II. He had appeared in a number of B-films after the war, most notably The Thing (1951), but was still relatively unknown. At six feet seven inches in height, he towered over even Wayne, and he proved to be a perfect choice for the role. Wayne did agree to introduce the first show when it aired in 1955, and he informed the viewing audience that they were about to see a new kind of Western program.

The show initially relied on radio scripts, which the writers adapted to the television series. The marshal was portrayed as a sad, lonely man; unlike most film lawmen, he sometimes made mistakes. Marshal Dillon had no family and few friends. His job, and indeed his life, was centered on Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1880’s.

The writers of Gunsmoke attempted to capture some of the real feeling of the Old West. Horse tricks and fancy riding were out, as were long horse chases. Comic relief was found in the show, but the comedian sidekicks often used in films were not included in the show’s cast. Sometimes the heroes were shot or took a beating, both physically and mentally. The town’s doctor, though, was usually there to patch them up, either with the tools of his trade or by lending a sympathetic ear.

Marshal Dillon spent much of his spare time at the Longbranch Saloon, owned and operated by his friend Kitty Russell (or Miss Kitty, as she was known). Though on the radio version of the show Miss Kitty was clearly a prostitute, on television Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty remained merely a romantic interest for the marshal. Though they exchanged winks and nods on the show, the relationship between the marshal and the saloon-keeper was never precisely defined. Nevertheless, Miss Kitty exhibited a strong, businesslike appearance and had no compunction about laying down the law when customers were out of line.

The only actor besides Arness who remained on the show throughout its run was Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams, the town’s kindly yet crusty doctor. Doc was always ready with an insult, particularly as it applied to Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), but he was one of Marshal Dillon’s few true friends.

Through the first half of the show’s run, Marshal Dillon’s deputy was Chester Goode, portrayed by Dennis Weaver. Chester walked with a decided limp, which served to keep him around the marshal’s office. Chester’s limp and the twang in his voice developed into well-known, and often imitated, characteristics.

Gunsmoke was not an immediate success; in its initial season, it did not crack television’s top fifteen. During its second season, though, the show jumped dramatically in popularity, and from 1957 to 1961, it was consistently the top-rated program on television. In 1961, the program was expanded from thirty minutes to a full hour. Over the next six years, the show’s ratings began a precipitous decline. Changes were made in the supporting cast. In 1964, Dennis Weaver left Gunsmoke, and it was then that the character of Chester was replaced by that of Curtis’s Festus, who remained with the show during the rest of its run. Other characters came and went.

In 1967, the CBS program council canceled the show but was overruled by William S. Paley Paley, William S. , the network’s chairman of the board. The show was moved to Monday night, and it returned to being among the ten top-rated programs; it remained in the top ten for another six seasons. During the last years of the program, Marshal Dillon appeared on fewer of the shows. Plots revolved around the other characters or around guest stars, with Dodge City merely as the setting.

When the show finally ended on September 1, 1975, some 233 half-hour shows and more than four hundred hour-long shows had been filmed. Despite the deaths of several of the show’s actors, special hour-long episodes were filmed during ensuing years.


Westerns represented a major form of viewing entertainment for children during the early years of network television. In general, the heroes of these shows were popular film stars, including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy. Such shows were low-budget productions and were often old films or serials fitted into thirty- or sixty-minute time slots. Production studios in many cities frequently converted buildings into “Western” frontiers and interspersed new footage with the material from old movies.

These programs were usually placed into midafternoon or weekend time slots and were targeted at children. Such shows were popular with young viewers but represented simplistic fantasies of the Old West. With the election of a “Westerner,” Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the White House in 1952 and the successful showing of the Davy Crockett television films in 1954, a Western craze began sweeping the country. President Eisenhower himself enjoyed watching Westerns, and the networks decided to go after the adult audience during prime-time viewing hours with Westerns that appealed to adults.

The earliest and most successful of these shows was Gunsmoke. The adult Western was not new to production; Hollywood had earlier paved the way with films such as My Darling Clementine (1946), with Henry Fonda, and Red River (1948), with John Wayne. Gunsmoke, though, represented the introduction of the genre into television. Though the show was not an immediate huge success, its long-term popularity demonstrated that a well-written Western could appeal to adult audiences.

The choice of James Arness in the starring role had as much to do with the success of the show as the plots themselves. Arness simply looked the part of a Western marshal. It was not long before other networks and sponsors introduced their own versions of the show; ABC American Broadcasting Company began its long-running (eight years) Cheyenne
Cheyenne (television program) series also in 1955. Cheyenne starred Clint Walker Walker, Clint , like Arness more than six and a half feet in height. The hero of the show, Cheyenne Bodie, was a scout and drifter rather than a marshal, but the larger-than-life character with a lonely existence was the same image as Arness’s Marshal Dillon.

An anthology series, Frontier, Frontier (television program) was NBC’s National Broadcasting Company;Westerns entry into the adult Western genre. The show proved unsuccessful, probably because of the absence of any central characters, and lasted only a single season. ABC was to prove more successful in 1957, with the tongue-in-cheek adult Western Maverick; Maverick (television program) one Maverick episode even served to parody Gunsmoke.

Prime-time Westerns proved to be quite popular among adult viewers well into the 1960’s. Shows such as The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Wagon Train, and even Have Gun Will Travel
Have Gun Will Travel (television program) were innovative and realistic in their own way. The stars of many of these shows, among them Hugh O’Brian, Ward Bond, and Richard Boone, became well known.

Not least among the effects of Gunsmoke and the other adult Westerns was on the way viewers saw themselves and their culture. The star was no longer always the clear-thinking and straight-shooting hero, and the Indian no longer the villain of the piece. As Gunsmoke evolved, social issues began to appear on the show. With the arrival of Burt Reynolds in 1962 as the part-Indian Quint Asper, the show had to deal with the question of racial prejudice. Other plots dealt with such topics as rape and the rights of minorities.

During the 1957-1958 season, six Westerns were among the fifteen top-rated shows of the year. Gunsmoke was number one; close behind were Tales of Wells Fargo and Have Gun Will Travel. If one counted the top twenty-five shows, an additional three Westerns could be included. Some sixteen Westerns were shown in prime time during that season, and other shows such as Zorro could arguably be classified as Westerns. Clearly, the genre had become extremely popular. The popularity continued for several more years. Six of the top seven shows in the 1958-1959 season were Westerns. (One show in the 1959-1960 season that did not enter the top twenty-five was a newcomer, Bonanza.)

The popularity of Gunsmoke was not limited to the viewing public in America. When the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) filmed a documentary on the first twenty-five years of television, viewers were observed watching the program in areas as diverse as the jungles in Africa, along the Ganges River in India, and in the deserts of the Middle East.

The innovative format associated with Gunsmoke soon became absorbed into the cultural mainstream. The Western in general became passé during the turbulent 1960’s, and few of the shows survived the decade. Even the survival of Gunsmoke became a chance thing. Nevertheless, the show endured for two decades of changes in cultural fashion, influencing television and society at large with its depiction of steadfast Marshal Dillon and his devotion to “justice, sincerity, and truth.” Gunsmoke (television program)
Westerns (television)

Further Reading

  • Barabas, Suzanne, and Gabor Barabas.“Gunsmoke”: A Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990. Contains the most complete discussion of Gunsmoke. Both the radio and television programs are described in an episode-by-episode program guide. Well written and well researched, the book makes for enjoyable reading.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Among the best program guides available. The authors provide complete broadcasting histories for all prime-time network shows; an excellent description of Gunsmoke is included. Also included are programming charts and an early history of television, as well as a brief history of television Westerns in general.
  • Buscombe, Edward, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Compilation of critical essays by leading scholars on television and cinema Westerns. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lott, M. Ray. Police on Screen: Hollywood Cops, Detectives, Marshals, and Rangers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. A history of the representation of law enforcement in multiple genres and media, from High Noon (1952) to The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Includes a chapter on Gunsmoke. Bibliographic references, filmography, index.
  • McCrohan, Donna. Prime Time, Our Time. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 1990. A decade-by-decade description of television programming as reflected in the lifestyles of Americans. Highlights include stories about individual stars and programs and the legacy that those shows left behind.
  • McNeil, Alex. Total Television. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Provides descriptions of all major programs shown on television. Included are a short history of programming, a list of top shows of each year, and a programming guide. More comprehensive than the volume by Brooks and Marsh, and equally enjoyable to thumb through.
  • Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time Prime Movers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. An informal guide to what the authors have referred to as the creators of television. Stories and styles are discussed as related to individual performers and producers. Though the book does not deal specifically with Gunsmoke, the look at the origins of various genres of television programming makes for interesting reading.
  • Rose, Brian G., ed. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Such television genres as Westerns and variety shows are examined with respect to elements that explain their popularity. A well-written history of television runs throughout the book. Extensive notes and a videography are provided for each chapter.
  • Wallman, Jeffrey. The Western: Parables of the American Dream. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999. Ideological critique of the Western genre in film, television, and literature. Bibliographic references and index.

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