Saturday, June 19, 2021

Whatever Happened to the Cast of Gunsmoke? A Brief Retrospective

By Christopher Robinson, WMD Senior Editor

As it has been stated numerous times before, TV’s Gunsmoke was one of the longest running prime time dramas, airing weekly on CBS for no less than 20 years. As a highly rated program, it still ranked in the top 30 shows when it left its time slot and was, concurrently, the last representation of the classic western genre on television.

While many believed it could have easily survived for several more years, the network nevertheless chose to put their cash cow out to pasture once its 1974-75 season came and went.

In the years that followed, the series’ former cast members remained busy, in and out of the public eye. They lent their skills to various genres and projects and most of their appearances in other films, shows and media only served to remind viewers of the TV western they had helped transform into the iconic institution it became. I reckon it’s time to take a closer look at those memorable and talented performers and the material they took on after Gunsmoke wrapped its 635th episode.
Perhaps more than any other star, James Arness would have Gunsmoke’s massive shadow cast upon every future activity he approached. As Marshal Matt Dillon, Arness embodied the show’s theme of courage, justice and fairness. After concluding that enduring role, the popular actor was drawn to similar stories and themes while occasionally deviating from the characterization he was then forever associated with.

Remaining in high demand for network television properties, Arness teamed up again with Gunsmoke producer John Mantley for How the West Was Won. A miniseries based on the 1962 MGM epic, the ambitious television event re-introduced Arness as mountain man/army scout Zeb Mcahan who roamed the American frontier of the 1860s, often joining his nieces and nephews as they made their way across the land’s untamed territories. A more raucous and saltier sort than Dillon, Zeb nonetheless reflected his similar principles, standing firmly for what was just and right.

Though Arness continued the role into three subsequent seasons, he often played an intermittent role in many episodes which focused on other members of his family, such as Luke Macahan played by Bruce Boxleitner who had himself guest starred in the very last aired episode of Gunsmoke, “The Sharecroppers.”

Arness remained loyal to television, starring in the police drama McClain’s Law, and TV movies The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory and a remake of Red River in addition to the five Gunsmoke TV movies (two of which we reviewed on WMD: Click Here for more info).

Thanks to his image and charity work, Arness was made an Honorary United States Marshal. After retiring from the industry, the popular screen icon passed away in 2011. His widow, Janet, continues to provide his fans with memories, memorabilia and new items of interest: Click Here to see.

Milburn Stone portrayed Dillon’s friend, the wise and down-to-earth yet often grouchy town physician Galen ‘Doc’ Adams. Notwithstanding seven episodes missed after a 1971 heart attack, Stone was the only star in the cast to remain with Arness for the 20-year run. After that, the veteran character actor retired and lived on his ranch until his death in 1980 in La Jolla, California.

As the Long Branch Saloon’s proprietor and Matt Dillon’s lady companion, Amanda Blake starred in 19 seasons of the series. One interesting reason she had given for leaving was the void she felt that had been left following the death of Glenn Strange who played her loyal bartender, Sam, for twelve seasons.

Blake slowed down her acting career to devote more time to traveling and working as an animal rights activist. Her intermittent film and TV appearances included The Boost starring James Woods as well as guest stints on The Love Boat and Hart to Hart. In 1987, she reprised her role of Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge.

Along with her husband, she bred cheetahs on her Arizona property and co-founded the Arizona Animal Welfare League. The Amanda Blake Memorial Wildlife Refuge in California was named in her honor.

Sadly, Blake passed away from liver failure in 1989 with later reports attributing the death to AIDS.

Dennis Weaver, who memorably played Dillon’s right-hand man Chester Goode left Gunsmoke in 1964 after nine seasons. He starred in the short-lived series Kentucky Jones followed by the family program Gentle Ben lasting two seasons. In 1966 he co-starred with James Garner and Sidney Poitier in the western Duel at Diablo.

During the 1970s, Weaver became president of the Screen Actors Guild and starred in Duel, one of the all-time famous TV movies, about a meek motorist being chased by a murderous unseen truck driver.

It was the title role of NBC’s McCloud that gave him a second iconic character part. He played a displaced New Mexico marshal coaxed into working with the NYPD on tough cases in the Big Apple. The popular show lasted seven seasons although it rotated its time slot with two other programs. (see photo above)

In 1976, Weaver was ‘roasted’ on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast show where roasters included former Gunsmoke co-stars Milburn Stone and Amanda Blake.

Possessing a variety of interests and causes, Weaver was active in everything from music and politics to animal-cruelty prevention and environmental issues, especially the development of energy efficient homes and automobiles.

In 2006, Dennis Weaver passed away aged 81. His final role was on the ABC Family series Wildfire in 2005.

Ken Curtis’s persona would forever be entwined with his character of Festus Hagen, Dodge’s foremost deputy marshal. In post-Gunsmoke years, Curtis essentially took Festus on the road, playing him in a western-themed variety act that included singing and comedy (Curtis was a professional singer before Gunsmoke, having been in Tommy Dorsey’s band in the early Forties and starring in his own singing cowboy series).

He made several television appearances in shows such as The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Vegas, Airwolf, How the West Was Won and In the Heat of the Night. The short-lived The Yellow Rose saw him in a supporting role.

Curtis also appeared in two made-for-TV films, Conagher and Once Upon a Texas Train but he turned down a request to reprise the character of Festus in the Gunsmoke reunion, Return to Dodge. In 1991, the versatile actor Ken Curtis passed away in his sleep at the age of 74. (continued)


If there was an actor who truly ascended to greater fame after their time on Gunsmoke, then that had to be Burt Reynolds. In fact, his subsequent career was so remarkable that few might recall him playing Quint Asper, Dodge’s blacksmith and unofficial assistant to the marshal, at all.

Though he enjoyed playing Quint and had stated he would do so until Gunsmoke ended, Reynolds left the series in 1965. Trying his luck in Italy, Reynolds starred in Navajo Joe, directed by Sergio Corbucci. American westerns Sam Whiskey and 100 Rifles followed, but Deliverance, an action-drama from 1972, brought him the stardom he sought. Reynolds’ charm and brawny charisma would see him cast in a string of mostly action films and comedies throughout the next decade.

Some of his popular films during this era included Hooper, The End, The Cannonball Run, Sharky’s Machine and the classic Smokey and the Bandit. For a five-year period, he was considered the number one box office star in the world.

In 2001, Reynolds provided a foreword to James Arness’s autobiography having penned his own memoirs in 1994 and 2015. The same year he appeared at the Gunsmoke reunion in Dodge City, Kansas alongside series regular Buck Taylor. Three years later Burt Reynolds passed away in Florida aged 82.

For two seasons, Roger Ewing played Deputy Thad Greenwood but the young cast member was dismissed in 1967. Ewing starred in two feature films before resuming a career in photography. Now retired, he lives in Morro Bay, California where, according to the IMDb, he is active in local politics.

The son of western sidekick and character actor Dub Taylor, Buck Taylor became a well-remembered addition to the cast of Gunsmoke in 1967 as gunsmith/deputy/doctor-in-training Newly O’Brian. When cast and crew parted ways in 1975, Taylor worked in an array of theatrical films including The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Gettysburg and Tombstone as well as the TV movies The Sackets, Conagher, The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory and Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge.

Taylor is also noted for his western paintings which often depict fellow actors and scenes from westerns he has worked on. Many of them can be seen here:

So you see, in some ways the sun never did set on TV’s longest-running western. Gunsmoke’s memories live on, not only in the subsequent work of its incredible cast and crew but in the hearts of every fan who watched, remembered and relived it. Indeed it seems like all roads in Hollywood lead right back into Dodge.

Christopher invites you to view a series of clips featuring the original Gunsmoke cast: Click Here!

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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