When it comes to the old TV Westerns, it's pretty hard to top "Gunsmoke." Besides lasting 20 seasons, banging out 635 episodes and setting a batch of longevity records for prime-time TV, it was a darn good show.
"Gunsmoke" on the Upper Iverson Movie Ranch
More than a few fans of TV Westerns rank "Gunsmoke" as their favorite. It's not that every episode was a masterpiece, but on average, it set a pretty high bar for its day — especially the early half-hour episodes.
"We're off to see the Marshal — the wonderful Marshal of Dodge"
It wound up as the longest-running live-action prime-time show of the 20th century. It was also the top-rated show on TV — not just the top-rated Western — from 1957-1961, back in its half-hour days.
"The Hunter" (Nov. 26, 1955): Matt rides the Upper Iverson's South Rim
The show premiered on CBS on Sept. 10, 1955, part of the first wave of the TV networks' Westerns for grown-ups — a wave that also included ABC's "Cheyenne" and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp." The three shows all rolled out within a few weeks of each other.
NBC's "Wagon Train": Ward Bond on the Upper Iverson
NBC showed up a little late to the prime-time "horse opera" party, but finally got serious about it by 1957, when the network brought out "Wagon Train" and "Tales of Wells Fargo."
"The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp": Hugh O'Brian shoots up the Lower Iverson
By the late 1950s, Westerns were dominating prime time — and business was booming on the Iverson Ranch. Just about all of the TV Westerns of the period filmed at least part time on the ranch.
Matt Dillon and his contemporaries (Time magazine, 1959)
Time magazine took notice of the explosion in TV Westerns, reporting in March 1959 that eight of the top 10 shows on television the previous week were Westerns.
"Brother Whelp" (1959): Marshal Dillon braces for some gunplay on the Middle Iverson
Dillon deserved more respect. In his 20 seasons as Dodge City's soft-spoken but fast-on-the-draw U.S. Marshal, he racked up a body count that would've made Wild Bill Hickok look like he wasn't trying hard enough.
"Outlaw's Woman" (1965): Another one bites the dust
Hardly an episode went by where Dillon didn't gun down a bad guy or two or three. One of the greatest Western heroes on any size screen, Dillon was big, tough, good-looking and packed both a keen sense of humor and a keen sense of justice — quick, decisive Western-style justice.
A memorable "Gunsmoke" sequence shot in the high rock towers of the Garden of the Gods
These shots are from the episode "Outlaw's Woman" from season 11, filmed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. — who went above and beyond to shoot these high angles.
"Outlaw's Woman": Harry Stradling Jr.'s adventure in the tall towers
Stradling's groundbreaking sojourn into the highest rock towers of the Garden of the Gods for "Gunsmoke" is detailed in a post we did on the legendary cinematographer back in 2011.
"Cimarron Strip": Harry Stradling Jr. tackles the Upper Iverson
The 2011 post also delves into Stradling's Iverson shoots for another beloved TV Western, "Cimarron Strip," along with some of his other Iverson Movie Ranch work. Please click here to see the post.
One thing that kept viewers tuning in for more "Gunsmoke" was the long-running "are they or aren't they" love affair — if that's what it was — between Dillon and saloon owner Kitty Russell, played by Amanda Blake.
Matt and Kitty in season one's "The Hunter," which premiered Nov. 26, 1955
The true nature of their relationship remained shrouded in mystery — a conscious decision by the producers that kept "Gunsmoke's" audience in suspense for almost two decades.
Amanda Blake with Ron Randell in "Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard" (1950)
She had already been working in feature films and on TV for five years, chalking up some noteworthy roles.
"Miss Robin Crusoe" (1954): Amanda Blake and George Nader
One year before beginning her career-defining role on "Gunsmoke," Blake received exposure in the title role of Twentieth Century Fox's comedic shipwreck adventure "Miss Robin Crusoe."
"Kitty Caught" (Jan. 18, 1958): Miss Kitty held hostage in Iverson's Ambush Pass
It's a good bet that none of the major cast members knew what they were getting into when they signed on with "Gunsmoke." Amanda Blake would go on to appear in 569 episodes of the show.
"Gunsmoke's" three most durable cast members
Other than Matt, the only "Gunsmoke" character who was around longer than Miss Kitty was Doc, who was played by Milburn Stone for the show's full 20-year run, from 1955-1975, turning up in 605 episodes.
Milburn Stone: "Gunsmoke's" Doc, when he was a cowboy
Dodge City's beloved Doc Adams was once a cowboy himself. A veteran of more than 150 movies by the time he landed his role on "Gunsmoke," Milburn Stone had been appearing in feature films since the mid-1930s.
"Colorado" (1940): Milburn Stone prepares to slice into a wounded Roy Rogers
He even practiced a little frontier medicine during his pre-"Gunsmoke" days. In this lobby card for "Colorado," Stone faces the unpleasant task of cutting a bullet out of his brother, played by Roy Rogers.
"The Master Key" (Universal serial, 1945): Milburn Stone on the left
After 20 years on "Gunsmoke," Stone will always be "Doc" to most people. But earlier in his career he had a wide variety of roles — including battling Nazis as Government Agent Tom Brant in "The Master Key."
"The Master Key": Chase scene at a historic L.A. crossroads
"The Master Key" has come up before on this blog. Click here to see a post I did a few years ago about an interesting L.A. location that popped up in the serial.
Chester and a grumpy Matt on the Upper Iverson in "Custer" (Sept. 22, 1956)
Matt — who appeared in all 635 episodes of "Gunsmoke" — had two main sidekicks on the show: Chester, played by Dennis Weaver, for the first nine seasons, followed by Ken Curtis as Festus for the last 11.
"Marshal of Heldorado" (1950): Grumpy, at left, when it still had its "stiff upper lip"
"Grumpy" used to look like this, but in late 1952 or early 1953 it lost the bulbous "upper lip" that gave the rock its trademark grumpy appearance. Click here to read a post from 2011 about Grumpy and its alter-ego, Diplodocus.
Matt and Chester on the Lower Iverson in "Sky" (premiered Feb. 14, 1959)
Matt and Chester went practically everywhere together for the show's first nine seasons. In the episode "Sky" they visited the "Heroes" area of the Lower Iverson — notice the rock between the two men in this screen shot.
NBC's "Heroes" (2008): Future-predicting rock paintings on the Iverson Ranch
The same rock appeared almost 50 years later in the NBC series "Heroes." It's the rock nearest actor Greg Grunberg in this photo — one of the few rocks that isn't covered in mysterious paintings.
click here to see a post I did a while back about the unusual Iverson Movie Ranch shoot for "Heroes."
"Gunsmoke" episode "Killer at Large" (premiered Feb. 5, 1966)
Another Iverson Movie Ranch set that surfaced in "Gunsmoke" was a rarely seen group of buildings near the Saddlehorn Relay Station on the Lower Iverson.
village" first appeared in 1958 and was only seen in a few productions.
"Killer at Large": Festus arrives at Saddlehorn Village
The cluster of buildings seen here was dressed up for "Gunsmoke" as the "Harris Forwarding and Freight Station."
Cyril Delevanti and child actor Craig Huxley in front of the freight station in "Killer at Large"
Does he look familiar yet? He's Cyril Delevanti, and there's a good chance you've seen him in one or more of the 200-plus movies and TV episodes he appeared in — often playing "Old Man" or somebody's grandpa.
The British-born Delevanti appeared in eight "Gunsmoke" episodes, playing a different character each time. His final "Gunsmoke" performance, at age 77, was in "Killer at Large," where he played Grandpa Harris.
Cyril Delevanti and Deborah Kerr in "The Night of the Iguana" (1964)
One of Delevanti's many memorable performances was as Nonno in "The Night of the Iguana" — a performance that helped earn him a Golden Globe nomination.
"Night Incident" (Oct. 29, 1955): The first Iverson Movie Ranch appearance in "Gunsmoke"
The first time the Iverson Movie Ranch ever turned up in "Gunsmoke," it was the Saddlehorn Relay Station that did the honors. "Night Incident" was shot by Ernest Miller, one of the great Iverson Ranch cinematographers.
Matt and Timmy climb the side of the relay station in "Night Incident"
Shot day-for-night, the sequence includes a fun scene where James Arness and child actor Peter J. Votrian climb up the side of the building. This may have been done on a soundstage, but my hunch is it was shot on site.
"Night Incident": Marshal Dillon rides past Saddlehorn Rock
Later in the episode we see Matt riding past the rock that gave the relay station its name: Saddlehorn Rock.
Saddlehorn Rock in its modern setting
Saddlehorn Rock remains in place today, among the Cal West Townhomes on the east side of Redmesa Road, a short distance north of Horizon Place.
"Sky" (Feb. 14, 1959): Guest star Patricia Huston at the Hangover Shack
Another Iverson Movie Ranch set to appear in "Gunsmoke" is the Hangover Shack, seen in the season four episode "Sky." We recently did an in-depth report on this enduring set — click here for the full story.
Matt and his new buddy Quint, played by Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds joined "Gunsmoke" in 1962 — around the start of season eight — and stuck around to play blacksmith Quint Asper for three seasons.
Burt tries to look intense on the Iverson Ranch's Fury Set (1962)
To publicize his addition to the cast, Reynolds did a photo shoot in 1962 on the Upper Iverson, where he struck a series of poses on the Fury Set — the ranch set built in the mid-1950s for the TV show "Fury."
Reynolds shows off "The Guns" on the Fury Set
As the photo shoot went on, Burt shed a few layers of clothes — eventually stripping down to what would soon become his "Quint-essential" look on the show, his sleeveless blacksmithing shirt.
"Navajo Joe" (1966): Burt Reynolds' next sleeveless fashion choice
Reynolds wasn't exactly a newcomer when he joined "Gunsmoke," but the role helped raise his profile. Within a year of his exit from the show he was starring in his own movies — including the spaghetti Western "Navajo Joe."
Reynolds deals harshly with naughty mountain man Bill McKinney in "Deliverance" (1972)
Higher-profile projects followed, leading up to his breakout role in "Deliverance." But even when Burt tackled serious roles, "The Guns" he flaunted tirelessly as "Gunsmoke's" Quint remained two of his main calling cards.
"Fuzz" (1972): Reynolds as we knew him best — not taking himself too seriously
Another calling card — and one Burt later said he regretted — was that nude centerfold he did for the April 1972 issue of Cosmo. The spread was spoofed later that same year in the poster for "Fuzz."
"Dutch George" (June 30, 1956): Matt, Chester and some other guy below Eagle Beak Rock
The season one "Gunsmoke" episode "Dutch George" filmed heavily on the Upper Iverson. In this shot three riders, including Matt and Chester, arrive below the ubiquitous Eagle Beak Rock, at top right.
James Arness and Tom Pittman on the Upper Iverson in "Dutch George"
At this range we're able to see that the "other guy" is actor Tom Pittman, in one of his two "Gunsmoke" appearances. The scene plays out on the Upper Iverson's South Rim.
Tom Pittman, as Jimmy McQueen, talks things over with Matt
Pittman had a promising career in the mid-1950s, appearing in a few films while also making the rounds of the TV Westerns. For a few years he could be seen in guest spots on "Cheyenne," "Wagon Train," "Trackdown," "Cimarron City," "Have Gun — Will Travel," "Tombstone Territory" and many other shows.
Article published Nov. 20, 1958, about Tom Pittman's fatal car crash
Sadly, Pittman was killed in 1958 when he crashed his Porsche Spider through a guardrail in L.A.'s Benedict Canyon. His body was found three weeks later in the wreckage of the sports car at the bottom of a ravine.
"Ten Little Indians" (Oct. 9. 1965): Marshal Dillon at the Gorge Arch on the Lower Iverson
"Gunsmoke" did a series of shoots on the Iverson Ranch in 1965, filming multiple episodes for the show's 11th season. These shoots marked the show's final round of filming on the movie ranch.
"Ten Little Indians": Dillon reacts as a stranger emerges from the arch
The season 11 shoots took place entirely on the Lower Iverson, where filming would soon wind down as Joe Iverson shuttered the business. His brother Aaron carried on a little longer with the Upper Iverson.
"Kioga" (Oct. 23, 1965): The Iverson Gorge, looking south
The season 11 episode "Kioga" features a nice shoot on the Lower Iverson, showcasing both the Iverson Gorge and the Garden of the Gods.
"Kioga": Indians in the Gorge, with Crown Rock in the background
The plot of "Kioga" concerns a conflict between a group of Indians and a white trader — and as was often the case on "Gunsmoke," it's the trader who's the heavy.
Neville Brand at the Devil's Doorway, in the Gorge
Neville Brand plays the trader, and his character is such a slimeball it almost made me hate Neville Brand.
Neville Brand as trader Jayce McCaw, up to no good
Here Brand's character is about to cause trouble in the Garden of the Gods, near the camera mount.
Matt rides in from the north in "Kioga"
Matt eventually arrives to sort things out, riding past the Mailboxes en route to the Garden of the Gods.
"Honor Before Justice" (March 5, 1966): Garden of the Gods
In "Honor Before Justice," Matt heads into the inner recesses of the Garden of the Gods to mete out one or the other, probably justice. Along the way he passes a rock with a big vertical crack.
Matt forges ahead in "Honor Before Justice"
Proceeding deeper into the interior, he works his way past other rocks featuring trademark cracks.
"Old Yeller" (1957): Old Yeller runs past the same rocks
The rocks featured in the sequence are also seen in other productions. This shot from the Disney classic "Old Yeller" finds the movie's star dog racing along the same route where Marshal Dillon would follow nine years later.
The same location in modern times (Jerry Condit photo)
All of these features remain in place today in the Garden of the Gods, as we can see in this shot taken a few years ago by photographer and film historian Jerry Condit.
"The Brothers" (March 12, 1966): Marshal Dillon in familiar surroundings
Dillon was right back at the rock with the horizontal crack — I call it "Moray Eel" — in the episode that aired the following week. Presumably the two episodes filmed their "horizontal crack footage" on the same day.
No discussion of "Gunsmoke" would be complete without a little coffee talk. The show may have been mainly about Matt Dillon gunning down bad guys, but after that it was all about Matt and everyone else drinking coffee.
"Gunsmoke" coffee pot — supposedly a real one from the show
You can find a fun story here that ran in The Independent in 2017 all about Chester's coffee. In one exchange highlighted in the story Chester mentions that two prisoners in the jail were "surly as could be when I took them coffee this morning" and Matt fires back: "Well, I can't say as I blame them for that."
Coffee Pot Rock in Sedona, Ariz.
I wish "Gunsmoke" had filmed at least once at Coffee Pot Rock, a natural landmark in Sedona, Ariz. But as fitting as it would have been, the show apparently passed up that opportunity.
"Angel and the Badman" (1947): Coffee Pot Rock
That's kind of a shame — especially considering that Coffee Pot Rock was an actual filming location. Here's a shot of it in the John Wayne movie "Angel and the Badman."