Amanda Blake was scared to work with Bette Davis on Gunsmoke

She was “absolutely petrified” at first, according to James Arness.

Image: The Everett Collection

Over its 20-year run, Gunsmoke had some of the most famous faces in showbusiness play characters in Dodge City. Some were on before they hit it big, others after they had already become household names.

Actors like Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfuss and Jodie Foster were all on Gunsmoke. Even prolific TV producer Aaron Spelling appeared in one episode.

One of the most memorable guest stars on the series was Bette Davis in "The Jailer." She played the matriarch of a family of outlaws who holds Matt responsible for the hanging of her husband.

Her sons, led by a conniving Bruce Dern, kidnap Kitty knowing that Matt will come to her aid. When he does, they imprison him. Davis's character, Etta Stone, vows to hang Marshal Dillon just like her husband.

It takes a great performer to play someone so evil. Casting director Pam Polifroni knew exactly who could embody that part. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she related how she pitched the idea to director Vincent McEveety when he asked for casting choices: "I said, 'Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it very much, but how about someone like Bette Davis?' And he said, 'Oh, come on, get real.'"

But Polifroni suggested they should at least try. As it turned out, Davis was a fan of the show and wanted to do it.

When the actors learned who they would be working with that week, they couldn’t believe it. James Arness told the Archive that Davis "was dynamite" and that Amanda Blake "was absolutely petrified at the idea of working with this great lady."

Davis and Blake's characters share many tense scenes together. "Amanda was scared to death," Polifroni said, but added that "they really did become great friends."

After her initial fear subsided, Amanda Blake got to know Bette Davis as more than just the legendary performer she admired. They were just two actors in a scene together and, as Arness put it, Davis was "right down to earth, no monkey business at all, and she went out of her way to work well with Amanda."

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MarkSpeck 27 days ago
She was a fan of The FBI and begged Quinn Martin to find a role for her on the show...and he found a perfect part, that of a philanthropist who uses her charitable activities as a cover for espionage. The big hurdle, though, was that the real FBI vetted all the main guest stars who did the show. They turned Davis down...apparently, it had something to do with her being a suspect in the 1938 murder of her then-husband. Even though she was cleared, that wasn't good enough for the Bureau. The episode, "The Courier", was made, with Ruth Roman in the role instead.
Utzaake 27 days ago
"Her sons, led by a conniving Bruce Dern,..." Fear the sneer!
RickLoera 27 days ago
Maybe she was afraid because she had Bette Davis Eyes.
HalPritzker 28 days ago
It's human nature to be intimidated by someone whose reputation/accomplishments evoke such feelings. But people need to remember that, fundamentally, everyone is the same, merely a human being. As much as I dislike Cassius Clay, one of the very few things he was right about echoed what I wrote above. He wouldn't allow himself to be intimidated by Liston, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson or anyone else. A young Al Jolson, once when faced with an audition for some bigshot, replied, "I'll sing for ya...but Jolie doesn't AUDITION for anyone!!" Somewhat blustery perhaps, but the right attitude.
jim88888 HalPritzker 16 days ago
"One of the very few things he(Cassius Clay) was right about...". Who the hell are you? The King of Arrogance? And just what did you accomplish?
Angela 29 days ago
She was one of those powerhouse actresses who electrified any scene she was in. It's difficult to look at anyone else when she is onscreen. She gave her usual great performance on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" as well. There's never been anyone like her.
Pacificsun 29 days ago
It's hard to (and really no need to) analyze a performer for being who they are, no matter the role. This applies perfectly to Bette Davis, who is uniquely an original! In looking over some IMBd trivia/comments (regarding Bette Davis filling in for Perry Mason brief absence), it is noted that Ms. Davis' performance in the PM episode (Constant Doyle) is a bit stilted, (possibly due to not only to a "lackluster" PM plot) but an uninspired script. What's interesting to note (as MeTV is saying in this article) is that merely the impact of her physical presence (dominates any scene) and is the reason why Ms. Blake was terrified in GUNSMOKE!

For Perry Mason fans, an interesting take on her performance in that show and it's effect on her career at age 54 (in 1962) in is in this link: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/pinch-hitting-for-perry-mason/article4184273/#:~:text=Mason%2C%20a%20defence%20lawyer%20who,stars%20pinch%2Dhit%20for%20him.&text=In%201963%2C%20when%20Burr%20had,spot%20to%20a%20lesser%20light. Although the consensus is represented by this link:
https://www.imdb.com/review/rw3417593/?ref_=tt_urv

Mason 4 episode absence was due to dental surgery. And (IMO) mega-guest stars were chosen to fill-in, not only to treat PM fans to stage worthy acting, but to assure Mr. Mason there would be no chance of viewers losing interest in the show without his presence! (What with Mr. Mason being a workaholic).

For GUNSMOKE fans: more about her appearance in this link: http://www.oldhollywoodfilms.com/2017/03/bette-davis-in-jailer-episode-of.html which gives high praise to her performance, and quotes: "By 1966 Davis was a two-time Academy Award winning actress, but that didn't mean it was any easier for the 58-year-old star to get work. Davis was mostly being offered parts in horror movies, so she turned to TV for the chance to play meaty roles like that of Etta (Davis had already appeared as a guest star on several TV shows, ..." and "asked [as to] why she was appearing in a weekly TV series, Davis replied, "legends have to eat too."

So very 'Ms. Davis' no doubt ... with those accompanying piercing eyes! 😉~😉
I am curious to know how Amanda would have felt if there were an episode of Gunsmoke where both BD and her nemesis Joan Crawford were both signed for the same episode. All three of them had a scene/scenes together. Perhaps Amanda would have been just as terrified of JC as she was at first w/BD.
Part of that indefinable "Star" quality has to do with (almost other-worldly 😉) ego which only works of course when there's righteous talent to back it up!! That's why truly authentic "Stars" are few and far between. Versus excellent actors (by craft) yet are always working with an underlying insecurity (like Steve McQueen) who (in his mind) always felt the need to prove himself. And was very competitive with other actors in the same film.
I have heard that actors can suffer insecurities. I guess you can consider acting a sport, as it can be very competitive.
Samual 29 days ago
I didn’t know such faces were on this show. I’ve got to find the episodes now.
Josie92 29 days ago
IMO, Bette Davis is the best female actor of my time; Meryl Streep right there also. I have always been a fan of older movies and miss Davis' performances far and away were so compelling compared to other actors. This episode of Gsmoke showed how professional and passionate she was about acting. I have watched it more than once. She was also on one or two other episodes of Gsmoke as I remember, same typical Bette Davis performance!
Pacificsun Josie92 29 days ago
😉 For Bette Davis fans I think this is true! Although Meryl Streep isn't one of my mine, We're all addicted to our particular favorites. But (in the same category) I think an actress like Meryl Streep is more able to melt into the particular roles she assumes. I do believe the BD performance in Gunsmoke was a more toned down version than on Perry Mason. And part of the trick was in being able to adapt to the small screen, as opposed to movies. Ms. Streep hasn't really really tackled television. But techniques for either mediums do differ. Perhaps it took Ms. David a while to adabt.
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