by Jim Meals (James Clay)
No doubt, the recent death of James Arness has caused many western fans to reflect on some fine memories. I recall growing up with two very good, but also very different versions of Gunsmoke.
The story goes that Gunsmoke began when CBS President Bill Paley asked for a western radio series with a main character modeled after Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Gunsmoke premiered on radio on April 26,1952 and the early episodes would seem to confirm this account. In the words of the show's producer, Norman Macdonnell, Matt Dillon was "..a lonely, sad, tragic man."
Dodge City was a dark place in the show's early years. Doc Adams was a ghoulish character who delighted in mutilated bodies. The only man Matt could really trust, Chester, was mentally very limited. As for Kitty, well, in the words of Macdonnell, "...Kitty is a prostitute plain and simple."
As the radio series progressed the characters softened to a degree. Doc lost his morbidity, but he remained an erratic individual given to drink and a bit lecherous. Chester became, in the words of Parley Baer, the actor who played him, “...a dependable nonthinker” and the relationship between Matt and Kitty became more affectionate, if also more vague. But the biggest change came in how all of these folks related to each other. After a year or so, they actually began to enjoy each other’s company.
When the TV version of Gunsmoke was in its early stages, a pilot was made using the radio cast. Of course, ultimately, a totally different cast was employed for the tube. Apparently, the pilot with the radio actors has been lost, a sad development for students of the western.
Comparing the TV and radio casts is a fool's errand but here goes: James Arness’ Matt Dillon was more in the traditional mode, while on radio, William Conrad portrayed Matt as a short-tempered, driven man. The Chandler influence never got completely scrubbed from the radio program. Milburn Stone’s Doc was a physician the AMA would heartily approve of, unlike Howard McNear’s radio version. Chester’s limp was a TV innovation which Dennis Weaver employed well.
A long overdue tip of the hat is here given to Georgia Ellis. Her Kitty had depth, strength and vulnerability in a characterization that Amanda Blake found hard to match.
Gunsmoke left radio on June 18, 1961. The show’s departure left behind only two half hour radio dramas. Those two programs were both on CBS and both departed on September 30, 1962. The golden age of radio was officially over.
(Thanks to John Dunning’s The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio which was a help in preparing this article.)