THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015


ANNOUNCER (George Walsh):  "Around Dodge City and in the territory on West -- there's just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers -- and that's with a U.S. marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.  'Gunsmoke' starring William Conrad. The story of the violence that moved West with young America -- and the story of a man who moved with it."

MATT DILLON (William Conrad): "I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal -- the first man they look for and the last they want to meet.  It's a chancy job -- and it makes a man watchful -- and a little lonely."

No, the above is not a typo.  The original Matt Dillon was not James Arness, but another big man (though in a different way), William Conrad.  The program debuted on radio in 1952, three years before its inaugural TV season.  At the time there were those who said that they thought that the radio version was more realistic and therefore was superior to the TV series.  Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that the radio version was one of the best produced, best written, and best acted programs to ever grace the radio airways.

The original Matt Dillon (1952)

Gunsmoke's radio cast
Early TV Western series used as their model the B-Western movies that had been so popular among juveniles -- especially male juveniles.  In fact, three of them starred the actors who had dominated B-Western movie production during most of the sound era: Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers.  In addition, there was the Lone Ranger, who was originally a radio creation, but who easily made the transition to television.

Most radio Western series were cut out of the same cloth.  As mentioned, that's where the Lone Ranger began his adventures, soon to be joined by Boyd, Autry, Rogers, and others who geared their programs to the same youngsters who sat on the front row during Saturday matinees at the theater.

While it is also true that adults could find and enjoy Western movies at the theater that were aimed at grown-ups, that was not the case when it came to early TV or radio -- at least not until 1952.  However, that changed that year when Gunsmoke, the first "adult Western" to air on network radio, made its debut on CBS.

It is generally conceded that the first adult TV Western series did not appear until 1955 and therefore radio had a three year head start.  Ironically, it was the debut that year of a TV version of Gunsmoke that did more than any other program to trigger a veritable avalanche of adult Westerns that would swamp TV programming and dominate its ratings during the remainder of that decade.

Three years before the TV version's first season, however, one of the co-creators of the radio show, Norman Macdonnell (1916-1976), used the term "adult Western" in an interview describing his new program, and thus is thought to be the originator of the term.  Besides being a co-creator of the series, he also served as its producer and director.  His partner in the endeavor was writer John Meston (1914-1979). Each man was only in his thirties when the radio series was launched. 

Publicity still for Gunsmoke
John Meston grew up in Pueblo, Colorado and had worked on cattle ranches and he had spent time listening to stories told by old-time cowboys.  As a result, he was able to bring an air of authenticity to the show's scripts.

Meston and Macdonnell wanted a hero, but one who was not invincible.  They wanted him to be more human than the B-Western heroes and thus more believable.  He wouldn't always be right or certain that he was doing the right thing.  As William Conrad said about his character: "Matt Dillon isn't perfect but he is willing to try."  In other words, he would not always be the "white-hatted" hero that juvenile audiences preferred.

And the villains he faced would not always be the outright evil scoundrels that the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy or Tom Mix opposed on the airways. There would be more gray and less black-and-white when it came to the motivations of the hero as well as of those that he attempted to bring to justice.

Although it is true that Macdonnell and Meston attempted to produce a realistic Western series and for the most part succeeded in their efforts, it did fall short in one respect.  Matt Dillon was a U.S. marshal.  He enforced the law -- federal, state, and local -- with only Chester, a part time deputy, and a none too bright one at that, to assist him.  Where the heck was the sheriff that the good people of Ford County elected to enforce state law -- not to mention his deputies?  And what about the town marshal who was hired by the town to enforce municipal ordinances -- not to mention his deputies?  The truth is there would have been not one, but three layers of law enforcement in and around Dodge City.  

Dodge's notorious Front Street
I know that Meston, a man who grew up in the West, and who read widely about the history of that region, knew better and that in other ways the program was historically accurate, but I have never understood why he did not make Matt a sheriff, or a town marshal, or at least give him some help.    

Well, now that's off my chest and we can proceed.

Before Gunsmoke, Norman Macdonnell was the producer and director of Escape.  The narrator of that series was a radio actor who was not only blessed with a deep and resonant voice, but a voice that was also capable of expressing a wide range of emotions.  The actor was William Conrad (1920-1994) and he wanted the role of Matt Dillon.

At first Macdonnell was reluctant to cast Conrad as Matt Dillon.  It wasn't because he didn't think Conrad would be good in the role.  It was that he thought the actor, one of the most ubiquitous radio actors in the business and the possessor of such a distinctive voice, would be too familiar to radio audiences.  However, during Conrad's audition he became convinced that the actor would be a perfect Matt Dillon.  Macdonnell would later give Conrad much of the credit for how his character and the show evolved.

Although Conrad was not cast in the Matt Dillon role when the TV series was launched in 1955, he did eventually star in three non-Western TV series: Cannon (1971-1976); Nero Wolfe (1981); and Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992).  Even when he was not seen, his voice could be heard as the narrator of TV shows such as The Fugitive (1963-1967), The Bullwinkle Show (1959-1961), and many others.  


Parley Baer  as Chester Proudfoot
Parley Baer (1914-2002) portrayed Chester, Matt's assistant and part time deputy.  He wasn't much of a lawman, but he was a loyal friend who always addressed the marshal as either Mr. Dillon or Marshal Dillon, but never Matt.

And at first he was only Chester, no last name.  But at a rehearsal Baer adlibbed the full name of the character as Chester Wesley Proudfoot, and the name stuck.  (On the TV series, because Chester was handicapped by a stiff leg, the last name was changed to Goode.)

An extremely busy actor, during his tenure on Gunsmoke, he moonlighted from 1953-1965 on television in a recurring role as the Nelson's neighbor Darby, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  In 1962-1963, he was memorable as the prickly, persnickety, hot tempered, thorn-in-the-side, Mayor Roy Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show.

But that likes a lot of telling the whole story.  Baer enjoyed a sixty-four year career in radio, TV, and movies and was still working well into his eighties.

Howard McNear as Doc Adams
Howard McNear (1905-1969) was another busy radio actor who possessed a readily recognizable voice.  He portrayed Dodge City's only doctor, a man who was driven West by a weakness for alcohol, but one he was able to overcome.

When the Gunsmoke radio series ended its long run, McNear didn't miss a beat.  Like Parley Baer, he moved to TV and into his most famous role, that of Floyd Lawson, the lovable barber on The Andy Griffith Show.  Thus for one season, he and Parley Baer were reunited.

McNear's tenure on the show was interrupted during its third season when he suffered a severe stroke.  He returned after a year and half absence, but because of the paralysis that he continued to experience on one side, he was always photographed sitting, usually on a bench in the front of the barber shop. He left the show in 1967, and died two years later, due to complications from another stroke.

Georgia Ellis (1917-1988) portrayed Kitty Russell.  She was a saloon girl, and not, as in the TV series, the owner of a saloon or a "hostess," but simply a working girl, primarily at the Long Branch.  She was on the show to add a little romance in the life of Matt Dillon and to give him someone to pass time with other than Chester and Doc.

Of the four principals, her character was the least developed and, unlike the other stars, her career pretty well ended with this role.   

Rex Koury composed a haunting, poignant, and strangely sad theme that was played at the beginning and the conclusion of each episode.  It fit the mood of the show perfectly.  He also wrote the interior music that was used to bridge scenes and heighten the sense of suspense.  The music added a great deal to the enjoyment of the show.

The theme also opened and closed each TV episode.  However, at some point a misguided decision was reached to use a more up tempo, more jazzed up version of the theme.  That was unfortunate, for it just did not have the same effect as the original.

Another great attribute of the program were the special effects.  Even without dialogue the listener had a good idea of what was occurring just by the sound of footsteps on a wooden walk, horses and wagons passing on the street, dogs barking in the distance, and people talking in the background.  It truly became a "theater of the mind."

In 1955, three years after the debut of the radio show, Gunsmoke began a twenty year run on TV.  All four stars of the radio show were given auditions for the TV version.  But it was only a formality; none of them were given any serious consideration.  So they soldiered on as before, and one would hope that they were consoled by the fact that they were contributing to one of the greatest radio programs ever produced, one that lasted nine years and did not end until 1961.

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