Tag Archives: gunsmoke

I Predict He’ll Be a Big Star

(Here’s another offering from my favorite guest blogger, my wife and soulmate Kimi.)

During 635 episodes spanning 20 years, television viewers invited James Arness and the rest of the cast of the long-running Western Gunsmoke into their homes.

The 6’7” Arness was born James Aurness in May of 1923 (he would later drop the “u” at the recommendation of one of his first directors.) As a boy, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. He was drafted in 1943 and shipped out to Casablanca. He was later discharged because of a severe leg injury he received from German machine-gun fire.

While recuperating, his brother Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible and Airplane fame) convinced him to explore a career in radio. Arness proved fairly successful at the medium, and appeared headed for a career in broadcasting when he accompanied a friend to Hollywood in the hopes of finding film extra roles.

After a stint as a beach bum in San Onofre, he was cast in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met and married his first wife, Virginia Chapman. With her encouragement, Arness began finding roles, often cast as villainous character due to his size.

It was while playing in one of these roles that he was spotted by agent Charles Feldman, who also represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who immediately put him under personal contract.

It was during this time that the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke was offered to Wayne. Duke turned down the role and recommended Arness for the part. (Some say Wayne was never actually offered the role, but in a 2006 interview with James Arness by Leon Worden of SCVTV in Santa Clarita, Arness himself implies that Wayne did in fact turn down the role before recommending him.) 

At first Arness feared the role would adversely affect his film career, but Wayne proved persuasive. He even filmed a teaser at the start of the first episode to help introduce America to the man who would become a generation’s role model and friend.

Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been Westerns and that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight. A Western. A new television show called "Gunsmoke." When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke," I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. And now I’m proud to present "Gunsmoke."

Duke certainly knew what he was talking about.

Santa Clarita TV Tour: Gunsmoke

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gunsmoke this week (I’m sure you have too, right? Anyone? … Anyone?)

It actually makes sense because I’ve been spending lots of time lately at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall preparing for this weekend’s Cowboy Festival.

For several years until the Western town at the ranch burned down in 1962, Melody Ranch was the home of Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke began as a radio show in 1952, and was adapted to television three years later, where it would remain at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings for 635 episodes over the next twenty seasons. The series was intended as a Western for grown-ups, with grittier and more realistic stories than those filling the airwaves at the time.

After the Veluzat family purchased the ranch from singing cowboy Gene Autry in the early 90s, they rebuilt the Western town in meticulous detail, re-creating Dodge City in the process.

This weekend I’ll be taking groups of Old West fans on a couple of behind-the-scene tours of the ranch, pointing out Marshal Matt Dillon’s old jail, Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon, and the Dodge House Hotel.

Gunsmoke landed in my thoughts a couple other times this week.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the passing of Ken Curtis, who for many years played deputy Festus Haggen.

Also on Saturday, I will be part of a panel discussing the two versions of True Grit, and whether or not Hollywood is seeing the return of the Western.

I discovered that Kim Darby, who played Mattie Ross in the original version of the film in 1969, was only selected for the role after Mia Farrow dropped out. Producer Hal Wallis was scrambling to find a replacement, when he turned on the television and found his girl.

And do you know what he was watching that night?

You guessed it: Gunsmoke.

Festus in Peace

For two decades, the Western television drama Gunsmoke was a crucial element of American culture. For eleven of those years, Ken Curtis, who played Marshal Matt Dillon’s cantankerous deputy Festus Haggen, was a crucial element of Gunsmoke.

Curtis, who was born Curtis Gates in southeastern Colorado in 1916, was the real-life son of a sheriff, living during his youth in rooms atop the Bent County Jail.

While mostly remembered today for his work on Gunsmoke, Curtis originally gained fame as a singer. For several years he performed with the Western band Sons of the Pioneers, as well as with the more mainstream Tommy Dorsey Band (where he replaced Frank Sinatra as singer).

Curtis began showing up on screen in the 1950s, often for famed director John Ford, who just happened to be his father-in-law at the time. Curtis appeared in supporting roles in several of John Wayne’s films, including The Searchers and The Quiet Man.

For a time, Curtis produced B-horror films, creating such anti-classics as The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster.

In 1964, he secured lasting fame when joined the cast of Gunsmoke. The show began on radio in 1952, and made its television debut three years later. It would last for (what was then) a record twenty seasons, often as the number one show on television.

After the show wrapped in 1975, Curtis still acted and performed at carnivals and rodeos. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1981.

Twenty years ago this week, Curtis died in Fresno. As a fitting ending for a true son of the West, his ashes were later returned to Colorado and scattered over the earth from which he sprang.


Three’s Company

Do celebrities really die in threes?

To some, it’s a universal law. To others, it’s just sloppy thinking applied to a statistical likelihood with all the famous people walking around these days.

Each camp draws different conclusions to the same evidence, like in late June, 2009, with the wave of celebrity deaths that took place around the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Another such grouping happened five years ago this week with the triple-deaths of the three-D’s – Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver, and Don Knotts – within 24 hours.

Darren McGavin, the first to be born and the last to die, spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest either homeless or living in orphanages. He began his Hollywood career as a painter on the Columbia lot where he secured a bit role in a film before moving to New York to hone the craft of acting.

He eventually starred in seven television series, most notably in Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the early 70s, playing a modern-day vampire hunter. His most famous film role came in 1983’s A Christmas Story, where he played the grumpy father with the kitschy leg lamp.

McGavin died on February 25, 2006, a day after Knotts and Weaver. He was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in an appropriate spot for a former vampire hunter, as his plot overlooks that of Maila Nurmi, television’s original Vampira.

Dennis Weaver was raised in Missouri where he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He committed to the profession after failing to make the 1948 U.S. Olympic decathlon team. His acting career was secured when he landed the role of Chester, Matt Dillon’s deputy, in the long-running Western series Gunsmoke in 1955.

Weaver was often seen on television throughout the rest of his career, including starring roles in Gentle Ben in 1967 and McCloud in 1970. He also starred in the Steven Spielberg thriller Duel in 1971.

Weaver and his wife Gerry had one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood history, lasting from 1945 until his death. He was an advocate for the environment and a major supporter of several progressive causes. He died from lung cancer on February 24, 2006.

Don Knotts, like Weaver, was born in the summer of 1924.

Knotts came from West Virginia and began his stage career as a ventriloquist. In 1958, he appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film No Time For Sergeants, which began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship between the two men.

Knotts later got regular work on television on Three’s Company and other shows, and in several classic screen comedies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Pleasantville, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (“Atta boy, Luther!”). 

But to the millions of fans who still regularly transport themselves to the town of Mayberry in the country of TV Land, Knotts will forever be Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney, with his Napoleon complex and single bullet, was just about the funniest character to ever appear on a television set.

It was fitting that both Knotts and Weaver died on the same day, since they both became famous playing deputies. As one blogger wrote back in 2006, “it looks like a bad week to be an ex-law enforcement sidekick.”

It was a bad week for us all.

I never met any of these men, so I can’t vouch for their real-life personalities, but thanks to the wonderful characters they played, it’s impossible for me to bring any of them to mind without breaking into a smile.