Tuesday, September 22, 2015



At about 5 pm this past Friday, September 18th, the folks who make the Westerns and the folks who love them, began gathering at Studio City’s famed Sportsmen’s Lodge for the 18th Annual Silver Spur Awards.  (The Sportsmen’s, which will soon close its doors, has been the location for the Awards for many years, and in fact predates the film business in Los Angeles.  In the old days, you could fish in their ponds for trout, and have them cooked for your dinner.)

While the Silver Spurs, presented by The Reel Cowboys, has always honored Western film and television in general, this year’s Awards were much more specific, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the longest-running live action series in television history, GUNSMOKE.  Reel Cowboys President Robert Lanthier rode shotgun, but handed the reins over to Julie Ann Ream, combining the event with her Western Legends Awards.  Julie grew up around GUNSMOKE – her grandfather, Taylor ‘Cactus Mack’ McPeters, appeared in 48 episodes, and her cousin Glenn Strange was Sam the bartender at the Long Branch in 238 shows. 

I’ve done a number of red carpets, but this time was a little different for me: Julie assigned me a cameraman, and asked me to do interviews from five ‘til six as the guests arrived, for a DVD of the event.  I was very happy to do it.  After that hour, I continued doing interviews with just my recorder, and those are what you’ll read below.  You’ll have to wait to hear what Mrs. James Arness, Bruce Boxleitner, Angie Dickinson, Morgan Woodward, and Martin Kove had to say until the DVD is ready.

Mariette Hartley flanked by costumed escort, husband Jerry Sroka

When I asked Mariette Hartley which of her three GUNSMOKES was her favorite, without hesitation she said COTTER’S GIRL (1963), in which she played a wild girl found living in the trees, and in need of civilizing.   

MARIETTE HARTLEY:  COTTER’S GIRL.  The very first.  It just stretched me to the limit.  Because I was doing a play, a very heavy play, at UCLA, at the same time as I was doing GUNSMOKE.  Jim Arness never reads the (script).  He reads the page that he’s doing that day, rips it up and throws it away.  The character I played is Clarey, and Jim was very nervous about hiring somebody to actually be on the trail with him for that long a period of time.  He didn’t want Matt to be accused of, I guess, child molestation or whatever.  So he actually insisted on meeting me, reading with me, which is very unusual.  So I got the part of this character who lives in the trees and eats berries.  Ends up getting dressed up.  But I can’t walk – they have to teach me how to walk, how to eat.  And in that particular scene, the eating scene, which was so funny, I end up grabbing a steak and shoving it into my mouth.  Now Jim, having not read the scene, had no idea what was going to happen.  And when these guys, and Kitty, got together, and started laughing, that was the end of the scene.  And it took us four hours to get that scene.  I had to leave, do the play, come back in the morning, we started again, and the minute they said ‘action’ we started laughing, and we were done, just done.  That’s one of the reasons I loved it.  Also it was a wonderful script by Kathleen Hite, who writes a lot of the ones on Sirius XM.  (Note: Sirius XM plays old time radio shows.  Kathleen Hite wrote more than eighty radio scripts, including many GUNSMOKES, and 36 FORT LARAMIE episodes.)

Four-time Emmy-winner Miss Michael Learned may be best known for playing Olivia Walton, but she also appeared on GUNSMOKE.  The first time she played, as she told me, “a hooker.”  The next time, also in 1973, she played Matt’s love interest in MATT’S LOVE STORY.  She was called upon to play the same role in 1990 in the TV movie GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE.   
HENRY: You had a relationship with Matt Dillon like no one else did.

MICHAEL LEARNED: Yes I did, but we don’t talk about it.  He had amnesia, so he could be forgiven.  I knew what was going on, but I didn’t know who he was.  I didn’t know about Miss Kitty.
HENRY:  Would you have cared?

MICHAEL LEARNED: (laughs) Probably not.

HENRY:  What was it like continuing a story with so many years in between?    

MICHAEL LEARNED:  It was kind of weird, to tell you the truth, because I never knew what had happened.  I didn’t know we had a daughter until (producer) John Mantley called me and said, “We’re doing a movie of the week, and you had a daughter.”  I said oh; okay.  It was a little strange, but just being with James, he’s such a calming person.  It was wonderful.  Nice to have a second chance to be with him.

L.Q. Jones and Tanner Beard

Miss Learned has been doing a lot of theatre lately.  “I just got back from doing MOTHERS AND SONS in Austin, Texas, and I’m going off in the summer to do another play in Canada.” 
Not all of the GUNSMOKE fans were old enough to have seen it in its original run.  Tanner Beard, who directed and co-starred in 6 BULLETS TO HELL was there with co-star Ken Lukey.  Their second Western together, 6 BULLETS was shot in Spain on Leone’s sets, and is probably the first Western to replace helicopter and crane shots with drones for dramatic pull-ups.  Actress Mindy Miller, all in buckskin, was eager to speak to L.Q. Jones.  Back in 1983, they starred together in the Charles B. Pierce Western SACRED GROUND. 

L.Q. Jones and Mindy Miller

L.Q. Jones is an accomplished writer and director as well as an actor.  I asked him about his thoughts on the GUNSMOKE writers.   

L.Q. JONES:  They had the best on GUNSMOKE. And you learn very quickly, you may think you can write, and you might be able to.  But can you write for GUNSMOKE?  Can you write for thirty minutes?  Can you write for an hour show?  I can’t. I have a tough time doing an hour and a half or two hours.  That’s a very special thing.  And they knew the people, and they knew their work.  Almost everything I’m in, they ask me to change (my lines) to fit me.  And I do a lot of it over the years.  But not on GUNSMOKE.  You take what they give you, hit your marks, say your words, and pick up your check.  The writers, the producers, the crew, they were so professional in what they did.

HENRY:  You did so many Westerns series at that time.  How did the atmosphere of the sets vary?

L.Q. JONES:  What do I say?  The people had become a family on GUNSMOKE.  Now I also did a lot of VIRGINIANS; and we became a family there.  I was a regular on about seven Westerns.  I’m not saying that GUNSMOKE was the only enjoyable series – I don’t mean that.  But they were the best of the best. They had great budgets.  They could afford to do the things they wanted to do.  And a lot of the other shows…  THE VIRGINIAN bear in mind, we were putting on a new western every other week.  That means you had two weeks to make an hour and a half show, which is a full motion picture.  So we had to clip a few things here and there on budgets.  We did some changes on the scripts.  Not that nobody did any changes on GUNSMOKE; they did.  But by and large you hit your marks, said your words, because what they gave you is what they wanted, and what worked.  And that’s what you’re out there to do, to please first the director, then the producer.  And I got so familiar with them that I could pretty well do it without having to ask them what to do next.  It’s hell to beat family, and I had family on two or three others.  I started out on CHEYENNE.     

HENRY:  What’s your favorite episode of GUNSMOKE

L.Q. JONES:  I know this sounds Pollyana-ish, I don’t mean to, but any show I do is my favorite at the moment.  If I didn’t, I’d have quit the business long ago.  What for me was the greatest fun, I did the first black episode of GUNSMOKE, where except for the regulars, it was all black.  And I was a terrible person.  I literally kicked dogs.  I beat kids.  I chased women, I drank, everything you could do.  They showed it on a Sunday as opposed to a Saturday.  That Monday I went to work; we lived in Camarillo.  I had about a forty-five minute trip to get to the studio.  I was driving my MG.  The top was down.  And I was booed and hissed for the entire twenty or thirty miles.    They had all seen the show the night before.  And they were throwing things and hissing and booing.  It was great fun to work under something like that.  That is my favorite, because of what happened after the fact, but I enjoyed the others as much as that. 

Then it was time for everyone to move in to the banquet hall.  I’ll have the highlights of what was said there in the next Round-up.  For my own interest, I was trying to explain the incredible longevity of the series.  It’s easy to just say ‘it was the best,’ and it was.  But why?  It’s worth noting that this past week also marked the 50th anniversary of the premieres of both THE BIG VALLEY (112 episodes) and LAREDO (56 episodes).  In fact, yesterday, September 20th, marked the 60th anniversary of the first hour-long Western drama, CHEYENNE, which ran for 108 episodes.  Why did GUNSMOKE last for more than twenty years as a series, producing 635 episodes, and four TV movies?  I believe it was the writing as much as the cast, and the secret to the writing was that it began on radio.  Radio is a much more intimate, less ‘showy’ medium than film, and with no visuals, story rather than action had to carry the interest.  And the thirty-minute running time meant that the shows had to rely on character at least as much as plot, since there was simply no time to get complicated.  The first six seasons of GUNSMOKE were half hours, most based on radio episodes, and even when the time ran up to an hour, the writers had already established the lead characters, and learned that stories about people were much more compelling than stories about events.




GUNSMOKE is everywhere, from TV-LAND to ME-TV to ENCORE WESTERNS, and with the new interest peaked by the television series’ 60th anniversary, it’s a perfect time to pick up these two fine reference books, and deepen your knowledge, and thus your enjoyment, of the greatest Western series ever to grace the small screen. 

Each book devotes hundreds of pages to episode guides, listing cast and crew and a brief synopsis of all 635 episodes, as well as the TV movies.   Ben Costello’s book is a lavish coffee-table book, with photographs, black and white as well as color, on nearly every page.  Costello’s book, clearly a labor of love done over many years, begins with a foreword by story editor Jim Byrnes, who wrote 34 episodes, and a preface by Oscar-winner and three-time GUNSMOKE guest star Jon Voight.  
Opening chapters detail the Gunsmoke story from its beginnings as a ground-breaking radio show created by John Meston and Norman Macdonnell, how western screenwriter Charles Marquis Warren would help craft it into a television series, the casting, and the real people behind the roles of Matt, Kitty, Chester, Doc, Festus, and all of the others.  Chapters are devoted to the many fine writers and directors who crafted the show.

Among the high points are interviews with the series stars, Dennis Weaver (Chester), Burt Reynolds (Quint) and Buck Taylor (Newly).  And there are two chapters of reminiscences by guest stars, including Morgan Woodward, Paul Picerni, Anthony Caruso, James Gregory, Adam West, William Windom, William Schallert, David Carradine, Loretta Swit, Earl Holliman, William Smith, Harry Carey Jr., and many more.   There are chapters about live performances by the cast, a staggering array of toys and collectibles, and even favorite recipes of the stars – I’m definitely going to try Jim Arness’ chili if I can find enough venison! 

‘GUNSMOKE CHRONICLES’ is by David R. Greenland, whose previous excellent books include BONANZA – A VIEWERS’ GUIDE TO THE TVLEGEND  and RAWHIDE – A HISTORY OF TV’S LONGEST CATTLE DRIVEHis trade paperback-sized book opens with a long chapter about the members of the GUNSMOKE acting family.  It’s followed by a look at Dodge City’s familiar faces, a season-by-season overview of the series, and a look at the GUNSMOKE movies.  Also included are lengthy interviews with actress Peggy Rea, actor Jeremy Slate, and a particularly in-depth talk with GUNSMOKE’s greatest and most frequent villain, Morgan Woodward. 

Ben Costello’s GUNSMOKE – AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION, is published by Five Star Publications, and is available from Amazon in hardcover, softcover and Kindle HERE

David R. Greenland’s THE GUNSMOKE CHRONICLES, published by Bear Manor Media, is available from them HERE.



Morgan Fairchild & Patrick Swayze 

THE REEL CIVIL WAR will be the topic of Wednesday’s WORD ON WESTERNS.  From THE BIRTH OF A NATION, to GONE WITH THE WIND to Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary and beyond, what were the best portrayals of the Civil War?

Bruce Boxleitner in GODS AND GENERALS

Confirmed guests include:  Bruce Boxleitner (GODS & GENERALS), Alex Hyde-White (G&G, IRONCLADS), Morgan Fairchild (NORTH AND SOUTH), Lee de Broux (THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE) and historian Phil Spangenberger.  The program begins at 12:45pm.  Come early to buy lunch and get a seat!  


Borax fans unite!  Activities will include a parade, games, music, food, and vendor booths!  It’ll be held at the Boron Community Park.  To learn more, call 760-793-4139.


The celebration features sagebrush songstress Belinda Gail, plus Southern Caliber and the Billhilyz.  Trick-roper, whip-cracker and gun-spinner Will Roberts will perform, and there will be reenactments and other Western entertainments courtesy of the Tombstone Legends and the Sweetwater Outlaws.  Not to mention equestrian events, stagecoach rides, a kids’ zone, vendors, food, and a beer garden.  It all happens at the Helendale Community Parke.  Learn more at 760-951-0006, ext. 230, or visit http://mojaverivertraildays.com/index.html


Here's lookin' at you!

See you back here in a couple of weeks!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright September 2015 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved


  1. Nice write up on Gunsmoke. I remember my Dad making us leave the park early to see the first episode of Gunsmoke and he seldom missed an episode after that. I think you nailed it when you said the secret to its longevity was the cast which became almost like family and the writing. Watch a 30 minute Black & White episode and see how much character development happens in that 20 minutes of air time. Then watch a 60 minute episode and see how they have to add a saloon scene with Chester or Festus bickering with Doc or a scene with Kitty and Matt just shooting the breeze to fill air-time. We also were exposed to many guest appearances by young actors who would later become stars and great character actors. All were excellent but the 30 minute shows were my favorite.

  2. Still watch. My all-time favorite TV program. Great post

  3. I remember seeing the GUNSMOKE episode with Mariette Hartley. The girl in the tree. Cute show. Cute girl. Lovely lady. I still watch GUNSMOKE. Never get tired of it.