“Gunsmoke” was an American television western that aired on CBS for 20 seasons (1955–75), becoming the longest-running prime-time television western in history. The series was the top-rated show from 1957 to 1961 and maintained excellent ratings throughout its run.
The western was broadcast during what is often thought of as the Golden Age of TV westerns. Other popular westerns of that time included “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Rawhide,” “Maverick,” Kung Fu,” “The Rifleman,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Death Valley Days,” “The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “The Lawman” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “The Wild, Wild West,” and a whole host of others.
“Gunsmoke” was set in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1890s. It actually began as a radio program that CBS broadcast from 1952 to 1961. Like the radio version, the television series centred on the character of Matt Dillon (James Arness), a U.S. marshal charged with maintaining law and order in an American frontier town. The supporting characters included Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), owner of the Long Branch Saloon, which doubled as a bordello, Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), the town’s adept and respected physician, and Deputy Marshal Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), Dillon’s loyal sidekick. When Weaver left the show in 1964, his character was replaced by Festus Hagen (Ken Curtis).
Much of the series featured Dillon and his allies battling bandits, robbers, or other threats that blew in from the prairie. Most conflicts emanated from an outsider’s entering the small, tight-knit community and causing some form of tumult.
True to its name, the show did feature shoot-outs. But the program’s enduring success resulted largely from the psychological drama and tense situations that were resolved with moral ambiguity rather than with a showdown at high noon.