A TV series doesn't get a more auspicious launch than did Gunsmoke
, the first episode of which, broadcast on Sept. 10, 1955, was introduced by none other than John Wayne ("Some of you may have seen me before"). In this historic prologue (included in this first-season round-up), Wayne hypes Gunsmoke
as "honest, adult, and realistic." Of James Arness, starring as United States Marshal Matt Dillon, Wayne predicts, "He'll be a big star, so you might as well get used to him." Viewers did more than get used to him. "Mr. Dillon," as his sidekick Chester (Dennis Weaver) calls him, became a television icon who literally stood tall as a steadfast, incorruptible symbol of justice through two of America's most tumultuous decades. The Bravo network ranked him among TV's 50 greatest characters. Gunsmoke
was television's longest running Western, and Arness's 20-year stint as Dillon would be matched only by Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane (and, by the way, Milburn Stone, who costarred with Arness as crusty, "vinegar face" Doc Adams).
For those who grew up with Gunsmoke's full-hour color episodes, this first season will be something of a revelation. The show is in black and white, and, at a half-hour, lean and gritty. Not that Dodge City is Deadwood, by any means, but its reputation as "the Gomorrah of the plains," as Dillon notes in the first episode, is well earned. Most episodes begin with Dillon setting the stage, Dragnet-style, like a frontier Joe Friday. "A man will choose his gun quicker to make a point than he'll draw on his logic," he ruminates at one point. "That's where I come in." Gunsmoke has its share of shootouts and traditional Western action, but the best episodes are gripping psychological dramas. In "Reward for Matt," the embittered widow of a racist Dillon was forced to gun down puts a price on his head. In "The Killer," Dillon exposes a gunslinger (guest star Charles Bronson) for the coward he is. Even an otherwise light-hearted holiday episode, "Magnus," in which Chester's backwards, backwoods brother comes to visit, is darkened by a twisted man gunning for "wicked" dance hall woman Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), queen of the Longbranch saloon (and a close friend of the marshaljust how close is only hinted at). John Wayne was right: More than 50 years later, Gunsmoke remains "the best thing of its kind to come along." --Donald Liebenson
Beyond Gunsmoke Stills from Gunsmoke: The First Season (click for larger image)