The network wanted to make Gunsmoke 90 minutes long, but James Arness shot that idea down
He also proudly described the Western as "drab and dirty."
Read to Me
Gunsmoke was the show the kept growing, kept evolving, kept… going. The record-setting Western was on for 20 straight seasons, so it had to evolve and adapt. Because television looked much different in 1975 than it did in 1955.
That meant, after its sixth season, that Gunsmoke swelled from a 30-minute show to a full-hour drama. Cast members came and went, though the trio of James Arness, Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone remained at the core. In 1966, following season 11, about halfway through its run, Gunsmoke made another major advancement, from black-and-white into color.
The leap into color had some purists on edge. This is why the network made a press push to sell fans on the color show. That included getting the press-shy Arness out in public selling the show.
"Interviews are rare and personal appearances… are out," the UPI wrote of Arness, as seen in The Bridgeport Post on May 8, 1966. "It is virtually impossible to determine where Matt Dillon leaves off and James Arness begins, if indeed there is any difference at all. Both are reflective men abhorrent of small talk."
Still, the reporter was able to squeeze some behind-the-scenes details from Arness. And they are quite interesting to fans of the "adult" (Arness always made a point to label Gunsmoke an "adult" Western, to set it apart from competition more clearly catered to boys).
For example, early in 1966, CBS, the network airing Gunsmoke, pushed to make the episodes 90 minutes long. "Arness opposed the scheme," the article explained. "It would have meant shooting two units simultaneously and diluting the show's quality."
The idea of 90-minute episodes, a full movie every week, was not new to Westerns. Three years early, in 1963–64, Wagon Train had done its entire seventh season as hour-and-a-half-long episodes. For its eighth and final season, Wagon Train shrunk back to 60 minutes the following year, which speaks to the wisdom of that decision.
Arness had a clear vision for Gunsmoke and pushed to keep the series — and his personal life — to the highest quality possible.
"We've kept the show from becoming gaudy," Arness said. "Towns like Dodge City were drab and dirty. We've maintained that flavor." He promised to readers to not "pretty up" the setting for color cameras.
Arness also explained why he sold his stake in the show a few years prior. "At one point he owned the show," the journalist said, "but he sold his interest in it two years ago."
"Being an owner got to be a burden," Arness blurted. "I'm not a businessman." He loathed having to attend meetings after long days of shooting. "I wanted my weekends and evenings free to spend with the children," the star said. As much as he cared about Gunsmoke, family remained the priority.
Would you have liked to see 90-minute Gunsmoke adventures?