There have been television westerns almost since the first TV sets rolled off the assembly line, but few have achieved the acclaim of Gunsmoke.
Was it the best ever? That will trigger a spirited debate among fans defending classics as diverse as The Lone Ranger and Deadwood. But as the longest-running TV western, Gunsmoke’s reign is unchallenged — and will likely never be approached.
It was Sept. 10, 1955, when viewers first met U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), Long Branch Saloon proprietor Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), physician Galen “Doc” Adams (Milburn Stone), Deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), and other denizens of Dodge City, Kansas. The series remained a staple in the CBS lineup for the next 20 years, ending on March 31, 1975.
Gunsmoke: The Complete Series collects all 625 episodes, uncut, from all 20 seasons, on 143 DVDs. Forget clearing a shelf — you may need to clear a room. But for television this good, it’s worth finding the space.
OK, I’ve Got It. Now Where Should I Start?
Good question. Ben Costello has the answer.
Those who purchased previous Gunsmoke DVD season sets enjoyed commentary on selected episodes from Costello, author of Gunsmoke: An American Institution: Celebrating 50 Years of Television’s Best Western. Few fans know the series as well; he grew up watching it, has spent decades collecting Gunsmoke memorabilia, and spent more than five years completing his book, which offers commentary on every episode.
If you’re a longtime fan or a new viewer and are not sure how to begin diving into 20 seasons’ worth of shows, Costello recommends these five episodes as examples of Gunsmoke at its best.
“Matt Gets It”
Season 1, Episode 1
The show’s debut episode was introduced by John Wayne, who had recommended James Arness for the role of Marshal Dillon. As the story opens, Matt is nearly shot to death when he tries to apprehend a notorious gunfighter. A couple more inches and this series would have had a shorter run than Tim Conway’s Rango.
Costello: “I could give you five great episodes or more from every season, but we still have to start from the beginning. Here the villain is quicker than the lawman on the draw — that didn’t usually happen to the heroes in westerns.”
“Sins of the Father”
Season 2, Episode 17
Big Dan Daggitt (Peter Whitney) and his Indian bride Rose (Angie Dickinson) are passing through town and check into the Dodge House. The locals discover that Rose’s father led attacks on white settlers, and vow revenge.
Costello: “This is an excellent episode directed by Andrew McLaglen, with a timely message about prejudice and hatred. Angie Dickinson is marvelous as the Indian wife.”
Season 7, Episode 8
The beautiful Miss Daisy (Sondra Blake) agrees to marry Chester if he can provide a proper home. So Chester begins to build a little house on the prairie, and everything that can go wrong does.
Costello: “When I interviewed Dennis Weaver, I told him his performance reminded me of the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton.”
“Gold Train: The Bullet”
Season 17, Episodes 12-14
Matt has a bullet lodged near his spine, and Doc doesn’t want to risk performing an operation to remove it. They put the marshal on a train so he can see a specialist, and the train is held up by a gang led by guest star Eric Braeden.
Costello: “This was a return episode for Milburn Stone, who had been off the series for a while after he had bypass surgery. There’s also a great performance by Amanda Blake, in a scene where she talks to Matt about the love she felt for him throughout the years. This is the show’s only three-part episode, and it could have been a movie.”
Season 18, Episode 13
Jude Bonner (William Smith) seeks vengeance after Matt arrests Bonner’s brother, who is sentenced to hang. He exacts his revenge not on Matt but on Miss Kitty, brutalizing her and shooting her in the back as she staggers back to the Long Branch Saloon. Doc takes care of her, and Matt stays by her bedside until he knows she’ll recover — then he takes off his badge and sets out to find Jude Bonner.
Costello: “This episode came out the same year as The Cowboys. And just like Bruce Dern got hate mail for shooting John Wayne in the back, William Smith received a lot of hate mail for shooting Kitty.”
Photography: Images courtesy CBS Home Entertainment, Paramount Home Entertainment
From our February/March 2021 issue.