Friday, February 17, 2017

Dodge City and Me

Dodge City and Me

Troy D. Smith
I love me some Gunsmoke.

And I’m clearly not the only one. Gunsmoke is the 
longest running dramatic series in television history 
–broadcast from 1955 till 1975, for a total of 20 seasons. 
Law and Order, a show I also love, managed to tie this feat 
–but with a caveat. The cast of L&O turned over several 
times during its run, with none of the original ensemble 
group making it the whole time. In fact, the longest tenure 
of any original first-season L&O character was five seasons 
(Mike Noth’s Det. Logan, although he did appear several 
seasons in the spinoff Criminal Intent.)

On the other hand, the four main characters introduced 
in the first episode of Gunsmoke had staying power. 
Marshal Matt Dillon remained the central protagonist for 
all 20 seasons. Doctor “Doc” Galen Adams also appeared 
for 20 seasons, although he missed most of Season 17 due 
to heart surgery. Miss Kitty made it for 19, leaving before 
the final year. Even the short-timer, Chester Goode, made 
it partway into the ninth season.

Kelsey Grammer’s “Frasier Crane” character tied Matt 
Dillon for longest run of an actor in a television role 
–but there is a similar caveat there. Frasier was not 
introduced on Cheers until the third season, and for two 
years was only a recurring guest rather than a featured 
cast member. James Arness brought Matt Dillon to the 
small screen as the main character of a program for 
twenty consecutive years –plus a series of TV movies, 
from 1987 till 1994. So in a way, James Arness played 
Matt Dillon for closer to 40 years.

But even twenty years is a big chunk of time. When 
Gunsmoke premiered my father was eleven years old. 
When it was cancelled I was almost eight –and when 
the final TV movie featuring retired marshal Matt Dillon 
aired, I was 26 and a father myself. To this day, love of 
Gunsmoke continues to be one of the bonds between my 
father and me, and we discuss it often.

I remember watching “The Deadly Innocent” with my 
grandma –and informs me this was on 
Dec. 17, 1973. I distinctly remember watching “The Tarnished 
Badge” –in which Victor French, whom I recognized as the 
kindly Isaiah Edwards from Little House on the Prairie, played 
a vicious sheriff that Matt had to bring to justice. The next day I 
re-enacted the story with my Marx cowboy action figures on the 
red clay banks behind our home (Johnny West was Matt Dillon, 
and Pat Garrett was the evil sheriff.) Whenever I think of that 
episode, I smell that red clay. That was Nov. 11, 1974.

That year my mom was in the hospital for awhile. My 
step-father, my older cousin, and I were on our own for 
several days. I remember our efforts to make breakfast 
that Sunday morning… the result being biscuits so hard 
you could break a window with them, and gravy so thick 
it was hard to pull the spoon out of it. And we watched 
the two-part episode “Island in the Desert,” in which 
Festus was held captive by a crazed prospector played by 
the great Strother Martin (who had a pet rattlesnake named 
Homer.) In a bizarre sort of family tradition, for years 
afterward we delighted ourselves in imitating Martin’s 
distinctive nasal voice: “Bite’im, Homer!” “I’ll cut ye, Festus, 
and I’ll cut ye good!” That was early December, 1974.

When I was 18 I had a job buffing floors at Wal-mart 
–back in the days when such stores actually closed at 
night, from 9pm till 9am. The floor guys would be locked 
in overnight. The other floor guy became my best friend 
–and he was a huge Gunsmoke fan. Syndicated repeats 
showed on the local Fox outlet at 10 pm every weeknight… 
when we were at work, yet before the rest of the employees 
went home and got out of our way. We had a contraband 
VCR tape that we kept hidden above the ceiling tiles in the 
janitor’s closet… every night, just after we got to work, we’d 
secretly stick it into one of the display TV/VCR’s, turn it to 
the proper channel, and push record. Every morning at 2am 
we’d retrieve it and watch Gunsmoke on our lunch break. 
Those are some great memories. And beyond that, the steady 
western diet contributed to me writing my own western stories 
at night while locked in those stores, never dreaming that I 
would one day be a published author.

I’m willing to bet that many of you have your own Gunsmoke stories, 
and I invite you to share them in your comments.

It’s hard to get out of Dodge.


  1. Great piece, Troy. I'm a late-comer to Gunsmoke, only really paying attention to it since 2012 as it airs on the MeTV channel (and the Mashal Dillon episodes air on EncoreWestern). I knew of it back in the day, but pay little attention to it because it didn't have laser guns (I am a Star Wars kid). It was also on Saturday afternoons prior to The Wild Wild West, my preferred show at the time. But now as an adult and a western writer, Gunsmoke is high on my list of favorite westerns to watch.

  2. Troy, I was little tyke when Gunsmoke was on, and in that opening scene where Matt faces down the bad guy on the street, for some reason, my childish brain focused on how tight his pants were--I called him "Tight Britches"--which made my parents laugh themselves silly, and ever after, my dad would say, "Well, let's turn on the tv and see what kind of trouble ol' Tight Britches is getting himself in tonight." LOL He loved that show and so did I--lots of great memories watching as a family--Mom was more of a movie watcher but she did enjoy Gunsmoke.

    1. That's funny! Because Robin and Hannah always make comments about his tight britches during the intro!

  3. About 10 years ago I was buying some DVDs at the Borders bookstore in Santa Monica, California. The young guy waiting on me said that his grandfather was an actor. I asked who he was, wondering if it would be a character actor so obscure I wouldn't be able to place him. James Arness, he said. My response was that of course I know him; I've only watched Gunsmoke all my life. There wasn't a line so we spent a couple of minutes talking about his granddad's career. I really enjoyed that random chance to send a second-hand fan letter to an actor whose show I grew up with and still love.

  4. I still watch re-runs and they seem to get better with age...or maybe it's just me. *Smile* Doris

  5. I still watch re-runs and they seem to get better with age...or maybe it's just me. *Smile* Doris

  6. Watched it growing up and still watch it today - one of my all time favorites

  7. My Gunsmoke story is that I met Ken Curtis (Festus). He was the guest star on a music show where I was a regular. Ken was just the nicest man and had an INCREDIBLE baritone voice. He was once a member of the Sons of the Pioneers.