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Series / Gunsmoke

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The 1964-65 cast. Top row, left to right: Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), Dr. Galen "Doc" Adams (Milburn Stone), Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), Deputy Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis). Seated: Quint Asper (Burt Reynolds).

A long, long running Western series about the adventures of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon and the citizenry of Dodge City, Kansas. It started as a radio series, then moved to CBS television (with a completely different cast) in 1955. It lasted to 1975.

At 20 seasons, the TV version was/is the longest-running live-action prime time American dramatic series (Law & Order tied this record in 2010, though Gunsmoke produced more episodes, and the 20-year record was finally beaten in 2019 by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, though again, with fewer episodes) and the archetypical television example of the Western genre. It still holds the record for longest-running prime time live action series, although The Simpsons has long since taken the overall record (it surpassed Gunsmoke's episode count in April 2018).


The show's cast included some of the most memorable characters in television history, including Marshal Matt Dillon and the sassy Miss Kitty. A good example of its impact: the planet on which the "Space Western" manga/anime series Trigun is set is called "Gunsmoke".

This TV series provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Chester's surname went from "Proudfoot" in the radio series to "Goode" in the TV version.
  • Anxiety Dreams: Matt has one in "Bloody Hands". Chester catches him talking in his sleep about shootouts he thinks he's having.
  • Ascended Extra:
    • Festus, of all characters, initially showed up in a single episode of season 8, out to kill an uncle who had shot Festus' twin brother. Prior to that, Ken Curtis had played other characters in previous episodes, and even played a different character in the season 9 opener before Festus was brought back as a permanent character.
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    • Also happened with Clayton Thadeus Greenwood- he first showed up as an Oklahoma deputy after wanted men, only to be invited to move to Dodge at the end of the episode. He eventually appeared again, became a recurring character, and was elevated to main cast status when added to the show's opening credits in season 12.
    • Newly started the same way before becoming a full cast member.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Played with in season 1's "The Queue." When the Chinese immigrant first arrives in Dodge, he talks this way, but later, when Matt speaks to him in Doc's office, it turns out that he speaks perfect English, but he intentionally speaks that way as he claims people expect him to, and it makes for less trouble with racists.
  • Asshole Victim: Wife beaters who got shot by the abused spouse, or much any psychopath who either beat women, abused their kids or was on some deranged moral crusade that Matt had to shoot. It was obvious that Matt hated having to arrest certain people when the victim was such an absolute monster who was asking for it.
  • The Bartender: Sam, Miss Kitty's right-hand man, who was eventually killed in a bar fight.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Downer endings were the frequent ones, happy endings not so common, and this happened quite a bit in between. Especially so if an innocent man is sentenced to hang for a murder he didn't commit- the real killer might be caught, but perhaps not in time to clear the innocent man.
  • The Blacksmith: Quint Asper, played by a young Burt Reynolds.
  • Bloodless Carnage: For all the times people are getting shot, you'd think there'd be more blood.
  • Book Dumb: Festus is not academically smart, but he's much more intelligent than he seems.
  • Bounty Hunter: "Dead or Alive" usually comes with a reward.
  • Breather Episode: Season nine's "Comanches is Soft" was a flat-out comedy about Festus and Quint going to get a bellows and getting involved with a dance hall girl they pick up on the way.
  • Brownface:
  • Call-Back: Actually not all that common despite a 20 year run, but it did happen.
    • Season 13's "Wonder" features two of the characters from season 8's "I Call Him Wonder".
  • Carnival of Killers: In "Reward for Matt", a woman offers a $1,000 reward to the man who kills Matt Dillon after Matt killed her husband while attempting to bring him in for murder. This was a Recycled Script from an episode of the radio show.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • When Festus first showed up we were given the impression that the Haggen family were primarily criminals and that he only worked with Matt because he wanted revenge on an uncle for the death of his twin brother during a botched bank robbery. There was also an implication that the Haggen family would disown him for what he'd done. When he showed up in season 9 he leans more towards honest work and associating with Matt, and in the season 11 opener he was ready to take the job of Marshal when he thought Matt had been killed. He's appointed temporary deputy as needed (as explained why Chester wasn't a deputy, the US government wouldn't authorize pay for deputies unless there was an emergency) until season 13 where it seems more permanent. The rest of the Haggen family also held him in high regard- they thought he was the "smart" one of the family (which considering how most of the Haggens behaved, wasn't too far from the truth).
    • Elbert Moses, a hill man from later seasons, was originally a scumbag who beat his cousin Merry Florene mercilessly and tried to rob the general store, even willing to take hostages and threaten to kill. In his second appearance after getting out of the work farm he was sentenced to, he was more of a comedy character, with his abuse to Merry toned down, and in his third appearance is even more of a goofy comedic individual, still willing to commit crime but only harmless ones, and seems almost protective of Merry.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Chester disappears without explanation in season 9, as does Miss Kitty in season 20.
    • Quint Asper vanishes without a word in season 10. Quint's leaving without mention was finally averted in season 12, when Festus says their current blacksmith is the best they've had since Quint left.
    • Thad's final appearance was the 2-parter that ended season 12. he vanishes when season 13 starts with no word why.
  • Clueless Deputy:
    • Festus Haggen. Though he was not full-time deputized until season 13.
    • Chester more or less served as this in the first few TV seasons, although the character was never officially deputized.
      • Both were only "clueless" if the script called for comedic moments- given half the chance, both of them could be quite competent and skilled at their jobs- Chester especially so.
    • Thad could be this at times, generally because he grew up in a peaceful Oklahoma town and took some adjustment to get used to life in Dodge.
    • Averted with Newly- he knew the law, was educated and was an expert gunsmith.
  • Color-Coded Characters: When the show switched to color for season 12 in 1966, some... interesting wardrobe choices were made to show it off.
    • Matt wore a reddish-purple shirt with yellow vest.
    • Festus wore a lot of bright blue.
    • Miss Kitty wore purple.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Painter from "Anyone Can Kill A Marshall" only took the job to shoot Matt as he was dying from illness and needed the money to help a friend - he probably had no real intention of even killing Matt as he aimed for the legs and figured getting shot to death was better than wasting away.
  • Corpsing: James Arness could control his laughter better than most actors, but often during filming the crew had to stop shooting because Arness got an uncontrollable case of the giggles.
  • Criminal Doppelgänger: Festus had one in the 1972 episode "Alias: Festus Hagen." The criminal (Ken Curtis in a dual role) is Frank Eaton, a bloodthirsty outlaw who is wanted for bank robbery, murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and many other crimes. The whole town is horrified at the thought that Festus was cleverly concealing a double life, but Matt immediately realizes something is amiss and convinces the U.S. Marshal who arrested Festus to do some investigating. In the end, Matt finds Frank Eaton and is taken captive. Meanwhile, on the morning of his trial, when Matt fails to return with evidence that the wrong man has been arrested, Festus escapes jail and goes looking for Matt, and runs right into Eaton. The two get into a huge brawl, and when Eaton is winning, the U.S. Marshal who arrested Festus in the first place arrives in time to save our dim-witted hero. In the end, Festus has no hard feelings for the Marshal: He even invites him to a birthday party in the show's closing act.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Chester, when Matt wasn't around, could handle himself in a fight.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: At one point in an episode, Matt and Festus are shocked at a newspaper that talks about how women in a neighboring town are allowed to vote, which would be shocking to men in the 1800s, when women weren't given the right to vote in Kansas until 1912, decades from then.
  • Downer Ending: A lot of the earlier episodes had these, before Reverse Cerebus Syndrome set in.
    • At least from season 1 through 10, downer endings were the norm- happy endings were the rare ones.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first season often featured an opening scene where Matt walked through Boot Hill, lamenting on the people there and the violence in Dodge. These opening segments were quickly dropped.
  • Entitled to Have You: Kyle Stoner from "Prime of Life" comes across like this, murdering a girl's boyfriend in cold blood while deliberately provoking him to take a swing, and then the very next night coming back to try and force himself on the girl, apparently not even caring that she wouldn't want him after he murdered the man she loved.
  • Eye Scream:
    • Real world example; frequent guest actor Jack Elam suffered injury to his left eye as a child, leaving his eye pointing sideways. He was usually tasked with playing outlaws and other vicious characters, though he did have a few heroic roles- his eye condition was finally lampshaded in season 16's "Murdoch", his character had suffered an eye injury after being shot in the head. After years of appearances it was the first time it'd been acknowledged on screen.
    • Bounty Hunter Louis Stark, from season 16's "Stark" had a similar condition- a gun had blown up in his face, leaving his left eye blinded and his right eye cloudy.
    • One episode featured an outlaw with one eye and a scar over this face. While attempting to break into Doc's office to kill a witness, said witness threw a knife at the window, shattering the glass which lodged in his one good eye.
  • Hollywood Healing: Matt took bullet after bullet, yet healed up like he was in a video game.
  • Honor Before Reason: Seen pretty often, understandable since many episodes would not have lasted through the first commercial break if Matt or the townspeople had simply taken the pragmatic approach. One notable example is an episode where a gunslinger comes to town while Matt is away, and makes no secret of the fact that his only reason for being there is to kill Matt Dillon in order to build his reputation. He's a well-known gunslinger, deadly fast and accurate, and proceeds to bully the entire town. Festus is one of his first victims, as he shoots him before even getting to town in order to steal his horse. The townspeople are just waiting for Matt to get back so he can deal with the problem, but Festus shoots that idea down, saying that the gunslinger is much faster than Matt and Matt won't stand a chance. Festus says the best thing to do in order to save Matt is have someone snipe him with a rifle. Both Doc and Kitty glare at Festus when he says this, their facial expressions and body language making it look like he just said they should piss on the American flag, shred the constitution, poison the well water, and probably kick every dog in town for good measure. Clearly they are okay with Matt getting killed so long as the gunslinger asshole doesn't get shot in the back. Can't have no back-shootin' in Dodge, Matt wouldn't like it. Of course, Matt would be alive to disapprove, but that's not the point. Nice work, Kitty and Doc. Matt sure appreciates you taking the moral high ground.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Word of God says that Miss Kitty is this. The television show never states what she does for a living, but in one episode of the radio series it was hinted that Miss Kitty is a prostitute (which would have been pretty edgy back in 1952).
  • Humans Are White:
    • No doubt a result of southern stations unwilling to air shows with non-whites as the show began before the civil rights movement. Aside from occasional Indian characters, and a single Chinese character, we didn't get a non-white main character until season 8 (Quint, and even then he was half white), and African-American characters were almost unheard of until season 9 (season 1's "Lute Bone" did have a black character with a speaking role, but it would be several seasons after that before another would appear). A few non-speaking Chinese character appear in the background on occasion, with one episode centered on a Chinese-run laundry in season 13. It wasn't until late in the 14th season that the show began to feature more African-Americans characters, first in "Mark Of Cain" and then a group of ex-slaves in "The Good Samaritans". Despite this, non-white characters were generally treated with respect whereas a few racist white characters were often killed or humiliated.
    • In particular, the first season had an episode about a Chinese character and the racism he had to endure day after day.
  • I Have Your Wife: At least one episode included villains who kidnapped Miss Kitty in order to trap Matt.
  • Ill Girl: Newly's wife. Her death prompted him to become Doc's apprentice.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Zig-zagged. Dillon is shot in the first episode and operated on. However many other characters who are shot just fall over.
  • Instrumental Theme Tune: Probably among the most famous of these.
  • Loveable Rogue: JJ, in the episode "The Widow and the Rogue".
  • Love Triangle: The episode "Annie Oakley" had this when a woman in an unhappy marriage deliberately tries to start one of these to make herself seem more desirable to the men of Dodge, which results in her murdering her current husband and trying to get a man who insulted her hung in order to keep up the appearance.
  • Market-Based Title: When the series was first screened in Britain it was retitled Gun Law (and the title sequence had to be slightly reshot to put in the new title, with a double for James Arness). It was later shown (on The BBC in the '90s, and now on TCM and CBS Actionnote ) under its original title.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Lena and Emmett in "The Big Broad". Lena is boisterous, harsh and domineering, and Emmett is small, scrawny and unassuming.
  • Mauve Shirt: Even when killing off characters a few minutes after they're introduced, there's often at least some effort at characterization.
  • Miscarriage of Justice:
    • In one episode, a thief is executed for a murder he didn't commit.
    • Another time, a man is convicted of stealing a horse that he paid for. It's subverted in that Matt believes he's innocent, and doesn't.
  • Miss Kitty: Miss Kitty Russell is now more or less universally assumed to be a Madam as well as saloonkeeper, and her impeccably dressed and coiffed girls up to more activity than just dancing and playful flirting. (The producer-director is quoted in a 1953(!) Time magazine interview: "We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, plain and simple." And Amanda Blake said in an interview in 1960, "When I first started, a reporter asked me what Kitty was, anyway? I said, ‘Why, she’s a tramp.’ I thought it was common knowledge. But CBS screamed. I almost lost my job.”) But these implications were subtle enough to go over the heads of younger and more naive viewers. Oh, and she's the Trope Namer, too.
  • The Mountains of Illinois:
    • The show features mountain and desert landscapes. In Kansas.
    • The Great Plains were known as The Great American Desert until modern irrigation techniques made planting sustainable crops possible. However, the definition of desert in this case was defined by the fact that the air is dry and summer temperatures could be extremely hot during a time period when it wasn't possible to cool off easily. Some kinds of cactus can grow in Kansas, but not the same as you'd see in Arizona.
  • The Movie: There were a couple of made-for-television movie sequels to the series, including one that introduced the character of Matt's daughter.
  • Mutual Kill: Mr. Amber and Simon kill each other in "Mr. and Mrs. Amber"
  • Never Learned to Read: Festus' illiteracy is often brought up; sometimes it serves as a critical plot point, but often is used as comedic fodder, particularly as a target of Doc's sarcastic mockery. This can come off as insensitive to modern-day viewers; however, such humor was not unusual in the show's broadcast era, and illiteracy would have hardly been uncommon in the 19th Century frontier setting. It wasn't so much Festus being unable to read that drew Doc's mockery, so much as his stubborn refusal to admit it. This went as far as refusing to learn to read, as that would require admitting that he couldn't read in the first place, and once creating his own language just so throw the mockery back at Doc for not being able to read it.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: There's a boy whose father is killed, and says the man never loved him. He is chastised by a judge, who shows him that his father did love him, he just didn't know how to show it.
  • Not Like Other Girls: In "Night Visitor", Timmy tells Dillon that White Fawn is "fun for a girl".
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Played straight at times, subverted others when Matt either suffered from a severe bullet wound, or came close to death.
  • Opening Narration: Some episodes opened with a voice-over introducing the show and James Arness as Matt Dillon.
  • Poorly Disguised Pilot: Subverted, despite a spinoff series having been produced. Dirty Sally was a followup series involving the two characters from the season 16 two-parter "Pike", but it went into production in 1974, 3 years after the episodes aired. It only lasted 13 episodes, in part because it was aired in the same time slot as The Odd Couple and Sanford and Son.
  • Recurring Character:
    • Quint Asper was more this than a main character - he wasn't seen every episode, and between seasons 8 and 10, was only in around 40 episodes total.
    • Both Festus and Thad started as this before becoming main characters.
    • Chester was more this in seasons 8 and 9, being seen only around half the episodes before vanishing.
    • Various Dodge businessmen- Mr. Botkin, Mr. Jonas, Moss Grimmick (who vanished from appearing when his actor died, becoming an off-screen mention afterwards), Ma Smalley, etc.
    • A few attempts were made to add such characters, only for the character to appear twice and never again. Cale was one example, as well as a criminal defense attorney who tried to set up shop in Dodge.
    • Later seasons had Merry Florene, Elbert Moses and their family show up on occasion, a group of hill people who made the Haggens look civilized.
  • Red Right Hand: A few of the bad guys have had scars and such.
  • Red Shirt: Shootouts would be boring if nobody ever died.
  • Retcon: It was clear that the earlier episodes of the show had yet to establish when the series was set... 1873 seems to be the official year, but some of the headstones on Boot Hill in the early episodes had dates of death in the 1880s. One episode took place shortly before the battle of Little Big Horn... which was 1876. A grave marker in season 9 has a date of death of 1878 on it, then a marker in season 15 has a date of 1874! To make it even worse, starting around season 13 they start mentioning that certain characters have been in town at their jobs for X number of years- the same as the show had been running, which would indicate a passage of time.
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • Matt's office has two cells in the back, with one in the back and one along the wall. Except for one episode in season 10 where a 3rd cell pops up for no reason in a area that's usually walled off, only to vanish after that episode.
    • This happens again in season 11- one episode has the mystery third cell added back in, and another rearranges the cells to move the office's back door into the cell room, all for plot convenience.
    • Matt's office was a main room with 3 doors, and a rear room with two cells- but plot reasons would change the layout as needed. Even though many episodes would lampshade the fact they only had two cells.
    • Another episode featured Matt's home- even though every other episode implies that he lives out of the office. It was never seen after that episode.
      • In the season 12 opener he rents a room at the Dodge House, instead of going to his house from the earlier episode.
  • The Seven Western Plots: The definitive marshal story, following the exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon and his deputies as they try to keep the peace in Dodge City, Kansas.
  • Ship Tease: Matt and Miss Kitty. The two of them definitely seem to have feelings for each other, but they never officially become a couple.
  • Shout-Out: One of the posters in Dillon's office is for Lewt McCanles
  • Spoiled Brat: In the episode "Susan was Evil", Susan is selfish and unkind because she always got whatever she wanted. When it appears as if she isn't going to get her way, she betrays her aunt's fiance to bounty hunters.
  • Spoiler Title:
    • The episode "The Widow and the Rogue". Her husband dies.
    • This actually happens with a lot of episode titles - though as the titles weren't shown on screen for the first several seasons, it wasn't a problem on first airing.
  • Stealth Insult: Doc once told Festus that he would never die of overusing his cranial faculties. Festus thought it was a good thing. Doc does this sort of thing quite a few times.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Shoving someone's head under water for 5 seconds on this show was enough to kill them.
  • Syndication Title: The half-hour TV episodes were retitled Marshal Dillon in order to differentiate them from the hour-long episodes that were later made.
  • Undying Loyalty: Many examples.
    • When notorious outlaw and murderer Jude Bonner takes the town hostage and demands information about Matt's family/friends in order to force the release of his brother, a murderer about to hang, Festus won't give anything up, despite being shot, beaten, and threatened with worse. After Bonner shoots Miss Kitty, Festus saddles up with Matt to go after him, bullet wound and all. He and Chester even have a Big Damn Heroes moment at the end.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: The show never entirely specified what the relationship between Matt and Miss Kitty was, but it seemed generally understood by the rest of the cast that they were somehow involved. The producers toyed with having them get married, but ultimately held off as they thought it would change the formula too much, in those days when Status Quo Is God was absolutely the norm.
  • Villain Has a Point: Mrs. Stoner in "Reward for Matt" may have sent a desperate young man to assassinate Matt promising the reward money on the marshal's head, but she had a good reason behind it. She's bitter about Matt shooting her husband down but she's right. Matt has killed hundreds of people on and off screen, and Mrs. Stoner wants him to get out of Dodge City before he kills any more.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds:
    • Doc Adams and Festus. Much of the show's humor lies in their constant bickering and sarcastic snarking, but just let one or the other get sick/injured or in any kind of trouble, and their underlying affection and respect becomes apparent.
    • This was also frequent between Doc and Chester.
  • The Voiceless: White Fawn in the Season 1 episode "Night Incident", a Cheyenne girl who doesn't talk at all throughout the episode.
  • Wake Up Fighting: Matt wakes up pulling a gun on Chester in "Bloody Hands". Chester stops him, though.
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out:
    • In an episode where an outlaw gets shot, they remove the bullet.
    • Actually a frequent bit of surgery any time someone got shot and the bullet didn't go straight through- but likely necessary to facilitate proper healing.
  • The Worf Effect: Happened in the first episode! Matt was gunned down and nearly killed in the series premiere, and several more times in the series. Matt may have been a head taller than most everyone, a fast draw and usually a better fist fighter than most but there were a fair few who could equal him, not to mention a few that were willing to cheat.
  • Written-In Absence:
    • Many later-season episodes barely feature star James Arness at all, a concession to his physical ailments (war injuries and his height led to chronic leg and joint pain). Often, Matt Dillon would be featured only in the opening and closing scenes, with his absence in-between explained by some out-of-town errand. Several episodes' worth of these brief scenes would be filmed in a few days, giving Arness more rest time between Dillon-heavy episodes. This also happened a few times even in earlier episodes. Matt would either show up at the beginning and end, or not be seen at all.
    • Milburn Stone's 1971 heart surgery caused his absence for a number of episodes. His character, Doc Adams, was said to have unexpectedly left town for updated medical training after he believes his rural isolation and lack of newer skills contributed heavily to the death of a young girl.
  • Yandere: Several women across the series had this personality, such as Beulah Parker, who outright has her brother murdered and tries to do the same to Dillon when he tries to stop her from marrying a murderer. There's also Leah Shuler from "My Sister's Keeper", who is so possessive about her sister that she outright murders a grieving widower who only wanted work to keep him from marrying her.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: In "Sins of the Father", one man sees Rose Daggit passing by on the street and says, "For an Indian, she's quite a looker."


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