When the Western drama television series Gunsmoke ended in 1975 after twenty seasons and a whopping 635 episodes, it was the longest-running live-action primetime series in history and had the highest number of scripted episodes. Gunsmoke held the former record until September 2019, when the crime drama series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit entered its 21st season, while the animated sitcom The Simpsons surpassed Gunsmoke in total scripted episodes in April 2018.
Gunsmoke was unparalleled in terms of how it revolutionized the Western genre and the remarkable consistency of the show’s cast, led by series star James Arness, who appeared in every episode of Gunsmoke as United States Marshal Matt Dillon, the rugged, towering lawman who attempted to maintain law and order in Dodge City, Kansas. Gunsmoke also became a rite-of-passage series in the careers of several future Hollywood stars, including Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Burt Reynolds, and Kurt Russell.
After Gunsmoke, which began its life as a radio program in 1952, debuted on CBS in 1955, the show became a critical and ratings success. Between 1957 and 1961, Gunsmoke, which won 15 Primetime Emmy Awards throughout its run, held the top spot in the Nielsen ratings. However, despite its rich, storied pedigree, Gunsmoke was unceremoniously canceled in 1975 even though the show still had respectable ratings, which led the show’s cast and crew to believe that the show would run at least one more season. The cancelation of Gunsmoke was so unexpected that it left the cast and crew stunned and prevented the show from receiving the proper series finale that it deserved.
Gunsmoke Triggered the Cancelation of Gilligan’s Island
In 1967, CBS decided to cancel Gunsmoke due to declining ratings, which reflected the fact that the Western genre was becoming increasingly out of favor with the public. Between 1963 and 1967, the ratings for Gunsmoke had declined to the point where the show fell outside the Top 30 in the Nielsen ratings. The decision to cancel Gunsmoke was initiated by a younger core of CBS executives, who felt that Gunsmoke was outdated and should be replaced with a more contemporary show. However, the news of the impending cancelation elicited public outrage. CBS regional affiliates threatened to stop airing CBS programs if Gunsmoke was canceled.
The cancelation decision was also met with disapproval by then-CBS President William Paley, who was urged by his wife, Babe, to reverse the decision. However, while Gunsmoke was given a reprieve from cancelation, CBS moved the show on its schedule from Saturday, where the show aired for its first 12 seasons, to Monday, where the one-hour Gunsmoke was opposed by the NBC sitcom The Monkees and the first half-hour of the NBC spy television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Moreover, to make room for Gunsmoke on Monday, where Gunsmoke remained until its cancelation, CBS decided to instead cancel the sitcom Gilligan’s Island, which had been moved to Monday for its third and final season amid declining ratings.
The Gunsmoke Cast Were Completely Surprised by the Show’s Cancelation
The move to Monday revitalized Gunsmoke, which returned to the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings in 1967. The show remained in the Top 10 until 1973, when the show fell outside the Top 10, but remained among the 20 most-watched shows on television. As Season 20 of Gunsmoke drew to a close, none of the show’s cast and crew had any inkling that CBS was going to cancel the series. Moreover, the cast and crew believed that any cancelation decision by CBS would be accompanied by one final season and certainly a proper finale episode, as a matter of respect.
As was the case with the show’s near cancelation in 1967, Gunsmoke was ultimately canceled by CBS in 1975 primarily because the network wanted to replace Gunsmoke with more contemporary programming, which turned out to be the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff sitcoms Phyllis and Rhoda. The cancelation was so unexpected that most of the show’s cast and crew learned of the decision through the Hollywood trade publications.
Gunsmoke Ended Not With a Bang but a Whimper
Over 20 years, James Arness was joined in the tight-knit cast of Gunsmoke by Amanda Blake as saloon owner Kitty Russell, Ken Curtis as Matt Dillon’s deputy marshal, Festus, Milburn Stone as Dodge City doctor Doc Adams, and Dennis Weaver, who played Dillon’s original trusted deputy, Chester, until Weaver left the series in 1964 and was replaced by Curtis.
The sheer unexpectedness of the show’s cancelation is evidenced by the fact that the show’s unintended final episode, titled “The Sharecroppers,” is a Festus episode, in which Dillon scarcely appears. In this jokey, nondescript episode, Festus, after accidentally shooting a man in the leg, takes the wounded man back to the man’s farm, where Festus is coerced into working on the farm to make amends for the shooting.
Needless to say, this episode was never intended to be a series finale or to provide any kind of overall resolution for the series and its characters. Instead of mounting and promoting a final Gunsmoke episode in a way that possibly could have generated nearly as much anticipation and attention as the final episode of The Fugitive generated in 1967 and the series finale of M*A*S*H received in 1983, Gunsmoke ended so ignominiously as to leave viewers with the clear expectation that the series would continue for at least one more season.
Indeed, there was no resolution for Gunsmoke until 1987, when Arness starred in the made-for-television film Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, the first of five made-for-television Gunsmoke films that Arness starred in, ending with the 1994 film Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice.