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Retro : 40 YEARS AGO : When Viewers Stayed the Heck in Dodge City

Stephen Cox is a free-lance writer and author of nine books on film and television

No, I’m not in it. I wish I were, though, ‘cause I think it’s the best thing of its kind ... and I hope you’ll agree with me. It’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about this show ‘Gunsmoke,’ I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow and may be new to some of ya, but I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. So ya might as well get used to him like you’ve had to get used to me.

--John Wayne

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When the Duke suddenly appeared on small, fuzzy television screens the night of Sept. 10, 1955, and introduced television viewers to “Gunsmoke,” he may have had a notion that this warhorse would outride every other.

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In fact, it did. “Gunsmoke” became the longest-running network drama series in the history of prime-time television.

The CBS television series, which had its genesis on radio, didn’t go off the air for 20 years, amassing 635 episodes. Marshal Matt Dillon became a virtual real-life hero to millions. Besides Arness as the law-loving marshal, the original cast featured Amanda Blake as the Long Branch saloonkeeper, Miss Kitty; Milburn Stone as Doc, and Dennis Weaver as Chester.

“James Arness and I are the last of the Mohicans,” recalls Burt Reynolds, who played the half-Native American blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962 through 1965. Reynolds, who is part Cherokee himself, so embraced the character that he named his own son Quinton after him. And, he offers, “Quentin Tarantino’s mother loved the show, too, and she named him after my character.”

For Reynolds, “Gunsmoke’s” Dodge City was training ground. “Actually that’s where I learned what a set should be like,” he says, referring to the occasional class distinctions on a film set. “You know, the stars don’t go to lunch with the day players and the day players don’t eat with the extras. Jim Arness just tore that all to hell and everybody was treated very nice. And it does start with the star of the show. ‘Gunsmoke’ was a very classy show and nobody dared act like an ass or a jerk because Jim wasn’t.”

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Being a member of the “Gunsmoke” ensemble meant you were part of a protective family that loved to have fun, Reynolds says. “Most people never realized what a fabulous sense of humor Jim Arness has. If Jim got the giggles, he was gone. Not just for an hour--for the day. It was a wrap. And I could get him once in a while,” he says.

One of the strangest things, says Reynolds, was just watching Dennis Weaver and James Arness. “Before each shot, Dennis would be walking along, and Dennis, you know, was a tremendous athlete--he almost went to the Olympics,” Reynolds adds. “And Jim had this terrible limp from catching shrapnel in his leg at Anzio during the war. So the director would say, ‘Roll ‘em! Action!’ And here Jim would be walking without a limp and Dennis would be limping. It was the weirdest thing.”

Sentiment runs deep in Reynolds’ blood. “Milly [Milburn Stone] was like a surrogate father to me,” Reynolds says. “He was an extraordinary man. One of the most enjoyable evenings of my life was a night I got with Milly and Eddie Foy Sr. They were doing burlesque routines and one would spark the other to a story. They danced.

“It’s hard to believe that Milly is gone, Amanda, Kenny Curtis [Festus]--all those wonderful people.”

Although he was happy making good money on a hit show, after three years Reynolds took the advice of Stone, hit the trail and got out of Dodge. “It was a time when I was making up my mind about what I wanted to do. Milly said to me, ‘You’re a movie star. Get the hell out of here! Go do it!’

“They had already been on eight years or so and Milly said, ‘How much longer can we run?’ Well, you know the answer. And I could’ve ended up richer.

“But Milly gave me the courage to leave, and I don’t regret it,” he says. “When I came on, it was obvious they were looking for a replacement for Chester. And there can’t be two leading men on a show when one is a 6-foot-6 like Arness.”

Years later, while starring in his own series, “Evening Shade,” Reynolds occasionally moseyed over to where the horses once kicked up dust on the giant Western street at CBS Studios in the San Fernando Valley. “It’s all torn down,” he says, “but I’ve walked around with great feeling for those days. I was very happy then.”

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One thing’s for sure: Reynolds captured a little bit of the Old West. “When the show finally ended, I asked Jim about the set because I wanted something,” Reynolds says with a glint in his eye. “God love him, he remembered me. I have the swinging doors to the saloon. They’re in Florida at my ranch where I built a saloon.”

“Gunsmoke” airs weeknights at 10 on KDOC. Several dozen episodes of the series are available from Columbia House Home Video (800-457-0866).


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