John Mantley, 82; Oversaw TV's 'Gunsmoke' in Its Later Years

Times Staff Writer

John Mantley, who oversaw Doc, Festus, Matt and Kitty as executive producer of "Gunsmoke" during the landmark TV western's final decade, has died. He was 82.

Mantley, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Tuesday at his home in Sherman Oaks, said his daughter, Maria Marill.

A former stage and radio actor who began his television career directing live dramas in New York City in the early 1950s, Mantley later wrote for many live and filmed dramatic shows, including "Checkmate," "Desilu-Westinghouse Playhouse," "Kraft Television Theater," "The Outer Limits" and "Rawhide," as well as 23 episodes of the "The Untouchables."

"Gunsmoke," which began on radio in 1952, debuted on CBS-TV in 1955. With James Arness starring as Marshal Matt Dillon, the series helped usher in an era of TV western fare aimed at adult audiences.

Mantley began as a script consultant on the show in 1964. He became associate producer the following season, producer the next and, in 1967, took the reins as executive producer.

Arness recalled this week: "The ratings were sliding a bit, and they wanted to get some new blood on the show. They luckily were able to get John, and he came and just completely revived the show."

Shifting the show from its focus on the central characters to more of an anthology style with stories featuring guest stars such as Bette Davis, Arness said, "was one of the innovations that he brought in. And it really worked well, because this gave us the opportunity to broaden out the story approach to things by bringing in new characters and opening it up."

With that, Arness said, "the drop in the ratings we were suffering at the time turned right around and went back up."

Until "Gunsmoke" was canceled in 1975 after 20 years, Arness said, "John ran that show and made it work better than it ever had before."

Mantley was involved in all aspects of the series, Arness said.

"He was a guy who was just completely dedicated to doing the best possible job that could be done on the show," the actor said. "Plus, he had a monumental amount of energy and drive.

"He'd be up until 11 or 12 o'clock at night sometimes in the editing room going over and over a scene he wanted to make a little better. He lived for the show, and he had the desire for excellence."

Looking back over his years on "Gunsmoke," Mantley told The Times in 1975 that he thought the show's finest hours were during its period as a dramatic anthology with guest stars of the caliber of Jack Albertson, Richard Kiley, Vera Miles and Suzanne Pleshette.

"What we were doing was 'Studio One,' " said Mantley, referring to the respected dramatic anthology series that ran from 1948 to 1958 on television.

The producer regretted the loss of the classic western form.

"It's the American morality play," he said, "as stylized as a ballet, the eternal struggle between good and evil reenacted with good always triumphant."

After "Gunsmoke" was canceled, Mantley was executive producer of "How the West Was Won," an ABC series also starring Arness -- as a mountain man -- that began as the 1976 miniseries "The Macahans." They later teamed up on "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge," a 1987 CBS movie, which led to four other TV movie revivals.

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1920, Mantley grew up in a show business family.

His parents were stage actors, and silent screen legend Mary Pickford was a second cousin. Mantley, who dreamed of becoming an actor as a boy, delivered the eulogy for "America's sweetheart" in 1981.

Mantley earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto in 1942 and served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. He earned a master's degree in theater arts from the Pasadena Playhouse in 1947.

In 1951, after finding acting to be less exciting than he thought it would be, he became a director of live television in New York City.

At one point, he was directing three half-hour shows a week, including "Teatro Televisione," a show for the Italian community, which may have been the first foreign-language dramatic show on U.S. TV.

Moving to Rome in 1952, Mantley directed a filmed anthology series that aired in America as "The Conrad Nagle Theatre." He also directed Italian feature films.

Unable to land directing jobs when he returned to the United States in 1956, he turned to writing for television. He also wrote two novels in the 1950s -- "The 27th Day" and "The Snow Birch," both of which were Book-of-the-Month Club selections and were turned into movies.

Mantley, whose TV credits include a stint as producer of the '60s western "The Wild Wild West" and co-producer of the 1968 western movie "Firecreek," starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda, was inducted into the Producers Hall of Fame in 1992.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 50 years, Angela; a son, Clay of Sherman Oaks; a sister, Patricia Brown of Pompano Beach, Fla.; and a grandchild

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Mantley home in Sherman Oaks.

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