Gunsmoke Took 20 Years to Get Outta Dodge

From 1952-1961, you could tune into Gunsmoke on your local radio to hear the adventures of the folks in Dodge City, Kansas created by Norman Macdonnell and John Meston. The primary characters were Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad), Doc Charles Adams (Howard McNear), Miss Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis) and Chester Wesley Proudfoot (Parley Baer). Three years after its debut, the series shifted to television as well, running on CBS from 1955-1975, producing an incredible 635 episodes. For television, Macdonnell took over the reins as producer with Meston the head writer.

Amazon.com: Gatsbe Exchange Framed Print Gunsmoke Cast Marshal Dillon Kitty  Fester and Doc: Posters & Prints

James Arness was offered the role of Dillon on television. The network wanted John Wayne who turned it down. He did, however, introduce the first episode. Both Raymond Burr and Denver Pyle were also considered for the role. Matt Dillon spent his youth in foster care, knew the Bible well, and at some point was mentored by a caring lawman. He also talks about his time in the Army in some episodes.

Gunsmoke Cast Matt Dillon 8x10 Photograph – Vintage Poster Plaza
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The role of Chester, with a new last name of Goode now, was played by Dennis Weaver. Chester was not only a loyal employee to Marshal Dillon, but he brewed a mean pot of coffee. He had a noticeable limp which apparently resulted from an injury in the Civil War. Weaver later said if he realized how hard it would be to film that long with a fake limp, he would have not used it. Other sidekicks to the Marshal included Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper (1962-65), Roger Ewing as Thad Greenwood (1966-68), and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brien (1967-75).

Chester Good....Dennis Weaver Gunsmoke I've always loved that hat | Movie  stars, Actors, Tv westerns
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Doc was now Galen Adams and played by Milburn Stone. Doc was an interesting guy. He apparently was educated in Philadelphia and spent some time as a ship doctor on gambling boats on the Mississippi River where he met Mark Twain. His young wife died from typhus two months after their marriage. He finally settled in Dodge City after wandering a bit.

Gunsmoke photo 197 Milburn Stone
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Miss Kitty was portrayed by Amanda Blake. Perhaps the closest bond she had with Dillon was that she also grew up in foster care in New Orleans. She was in more than 500 of the television episodes. In addition to her role as “entertaining men” in Dodge City, she is half owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Kitty and Matt obviously are attracted to each other and are very close. Kitty was a successful business owner and had a cold demeanor about professional matters but had a soft heart in other matters. Blake was ready to leave the show in 1974, and her storyline was that she finally returned to New Orleans.

Amanda Blake - Wikipedia
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During its twenty-year stint, the show had some notable guest stars.  Just a few celebrities who graced the set include Jack Albertson, Ed Asner, James Backus, Beau Bridges, Charles Bronson, Bette Davis, Angie Dickinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Buddy Ebsen, Barbara Eden, Jodie Foster, Mariette Hartley, Ron Howard, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Rose Marie, Howard McNear, Harry Morgan, Leonard Nimoy, Carroll O’Connor, Denver Pyle, Wayne Rogers, William Shatner, Cicely Tyson, and Adam West.

While the show portrayed the hard life in the West, it was also a warm and humorous celebration of a group of people making a new life together.

The opening of the show is a gunfight between Matt and a “bad guy.” It was shot on the same Main Street set used in High Noon, the Grace Kelly/Gary Cooper classic. The scene was dropped in the 1970s when a nonviolence emphasis was placed on television shows and the opening was Matt riding his horse.

Gunsmoke, The Great American Western
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The show began its life on Saturday nights at 10 pm ET. In 1961 when the radio show left the air, the television show switched from half an hour to an hour. For season 13, it moved to Monday nights at 7:30 for four years, and then at 8 pm for four years. By season two it was a top ten hit, rising to number one where it remained until 1971.

The first seven seasons were sponsored by L&M cigarettes and Remington shavers.

The well-known theme from the show and radio was “Old Trails” composed by Rex Koury. Lyrics were later recorded by Tex Ritter in 1955 but not used in either radio or tv. Although I could not confirm it, I read several mentions that Koury was so busy, he actually penned the song while using the bathroom. William Lava composed original theme music for television; other composers who contributed music during the twenty years were Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Jerome Moross, and Franz Waxman.

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Surprisingly, the show was only nominated for fifteen Emmys during its reign. Of those, there were only three wins: one for best dramatic show in 1957, one for Dennis Weaver as supporting actor in 1958, and one for Milburn Stone in 1967.

After surviving the rural purge Paley conducted, the cast thought they were not in jeopardy and were all stunned by the cancellation in 1975. CBS had not prepared them that they were debating ending the show. They assumed the show was continuing till it had 700 episodes and many of the stars read about the cancellation in the trade magazines.

The show has appeared in syndication in three different versions. One package is half-hour episodes from 1955-1961, one package contains hour-long black and white episodes from 1961-1966, and the final package contains one-hour color episodes from 1966-1975. Me TV currently airs the one-hour color shows.

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Arness would appear in five made-for-television movies after the show went off the air. In 1987, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge featured Blake as Miss Kitty and Taylor as O’Brien. Stone had passed away in 1980, so his role was not part of the new film. Gunsmoke: The Last Apache premiered in 1990 without Blake who had died in 1989. In 1992-1994, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man, Gunsmoke: The Long Ride, and Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice would appear before the series rode off into the sunset for good.

After being on television so long, it’s not surprising that there were a lot of merchandising opportunities for the show. In addition to typical items like lunch boxes, there was Gunsmoke cottage cheese. A Matt Dillon figurine was available with his Horse Buck.

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There were also board games, puzzles and a variety of books including numerous paperbacks and comic books from Dell and Gold Key.

1950s Gunsmoke lunch box with thermos. Vintage Gunsmoke Matt Dillon U.S.  Marshall metal lunchbox with thermos. Lunchbox depicts James Arness as Matt  Dillon draw…

Fans had an affinity for the show. During its time on the air more than thirty westerns came and went, but Gunsmoke continued, in the top ten for most of its two decades. Few series have their own museum, but you can visit Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City to learn all about the show. Furniture from the series is included, as well as signed photos from the cast and other memorabilia including one of Miss Kitty’s dresses.

When you hear someone say “Get outta Dodge,” you can fondly remember Gunsmoke which is where this phrase began. Perhaps being cancelled was a blessing in disguise. After two decades, maybe it was time to get outta Dodge, maintaining the high standards and high ratings that made the show such a long-running success.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: A Different Love Story

In our quest to celebrate some of our favorite fathers, we jump into the world of Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE”S FATHER, Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz, 1969-1972. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy:
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The series debuted on television in September of 1969 and lasted until spring of 1972. The show was based on a 1963 film starring Glen Ford and Ron Howard, which was based on a novel, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father by Mark Toby.  

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Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby) is a magazine publisher in his 30s. His wife Helen passed away, and he is raising his son Eddie (Brandon Cruz) who is six with the help of his housekeeper Mrs. Livingston (Miyoshi Umeki). Eddie thought his father needed to remarry, so he plotted to set his father up with various women. As the show continued, the plots were less about Tom marrying and more around daily life for him and his son. Rounding out the cast is Norman (James Komack), Tom’s friend and photographer for the magazine; Tina (Kristina Holland), Tom’s secretary; and Joey (Jodie Foster), Eddie’s friend.

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Komack and Holland

Mrs. Livingston was a bit formal, but we also saw her smile at some of Eddie’s antics. We knew she cared about him.  She called Tom “Mr. Eddie’s father.”

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Miyoshi Umeki who played Mrs. Livingston would retire from acting after the show went off the air. She went to work with her husband who had a film editing equipment and rental business.

It was a talented cast, and everyone seemed to work well together. Tom was a loving and fun father but also made sure Eddie had discipline when necessary.  With all the chaos going on in America like the Vietnam War and the Manson Murders, it was a heart-warming show about a unique family. Each episode ended with a heart-to-heart talk between father and son.

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Here is a typical plot from the show. This episode from 1972 was titled “The Choice”: Tom starts dating Eddie’s substitute pediatrician, Liz Park. Before things get too serious between the two of them, Liz tells Tom that she is going to Switzerland for three years to study. Although they are attracted to each other, and it will be hard to break up, they decide to keep dating till she leaves. When they get closer, she decides not to go to Switzerland. After one of their dates, they come back to Tom’s and find Eddie with a high fever. Liz treats him and she realizes that pediatric surgery, her chosen field, is too important to give up and ends up leaving for Switzerland.

There was an impressive list of guest stars on the show including Willie Aames, Yvonne Craig, Bill Dana, Sammy Davis Jr., Will Geer, Pat Harrington, Tippi Hedren, Carol Lawrence, Anne Meara, Erin Moran, Pat Morita, Suzanne Pleshette, Lori Saunders, Jerry Stiller, Sally Struthers, Cicely Tyson, and George Takei.

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James Komack was not only part of the cast, but he was the creator and executive producer of the show. During the run of the show, Bixby would try his hand at directing and directed eight episodes. (He would go on to direct 92 other episodes of shows as well as tv movies.) Other directors on the show included Hal Cooper, Harry Falk, Randall Hood, Leslie Martinson, Alan Rafkin, and Bob Sweeney.

The popular theme song was written and performed by Harry Nilsson. While the show was playing, scenes of Tom and Eddie bonding in various moments appeared. The lyrics were:

People let me tell you ’bout my best friend,

He’s a warm-hearted person who’ll love me till the end.

People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend,

He’s a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy.

People let me tell you ’bout him he’s so much fun

Whether we’re talkin’ man to man or whether we’re talking son to son.

Cause he’s my best friend.

Yeah, he’s my best friend.

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Bixby received an Emmy nomination in 1971. (In that same year, Komack was nominated for producer and Umeki was nominated for a Golden Globe for supporting actress.)  The show continued to have good ratings for season two, but during the third season, Komack started putting more emphasis on his role. Bixby didn’t agree with the focus and ratings began to plummet, and the show was cancelled.

DVDs were released between 2011 and 2014.

Like so many of the popular 1960s shows, this one was slated for a reboot. Nicholas Cage wanted to remake the film but lost interest when his son got too old for the role. In 2003, the WB filmed a pilot based on the show with Ken Marino and Josh Hutcherson but it was never picked up.

Although the show was not real life, it did mirror it. Cruz came from a broken home and when it got too unbearable to stay there, Bixby let Brandon live with him. Cruz said Bixby’s life had some sadness and despair in it. His six-year-old son died from a throat infection and his wife, actress Brenda Benet, committed suicide less than a year after.

Cruz is now a case manager for Walking Miracles Malibu, a drug and alcohol recovery community. He has nothing but praise for Bixby. “James Komack was the producer, writer, co-star and director, but Bill set the tone of what went on the set. If Bill was happy, everybody was happy because he was the easiest guy to work with when he was happy, and that was pretty much all the time. He was a very private guy, he didn’t let a lot out.”

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Brandon relayed something that occurred on the set one day. “He showed everybody how to treat other people nicely. A guy got fired on the set one day, and I don’t know what he’d done, but he was one of my favorite guys on the crew. I told Bill, ‘Hey, I really like that guy.’ And he got his job back because Bill wanted me happy. It’s just the way he worked. It was a big family, and everybody loved working on that show.”

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Cruz and Bixby stayed close and in touch till Bixby died. They called each other on their birthdays, and Brandon’s son is named Lincoln Bixby Cruz.

The show demonstrated how close and loving Tom and Eddie were. They truly were best friends, and it’s nice to know some of that closeness carried over into their real life as well.