Have you ever wondered about the actors and actresses who portrayed the characters on the western shows that we and/or our parents grew up with on our TV screens? After watching re-runs of several westerns from my past, I decided I wanted to find out about these people who entertained me. After looking them up, I thought you might be interested, too. Today I’m concentrating on one of my favorites, GUNSMOKE which ran for 20 years.
Matt Dillon was played by 6’7” James Arness, who was born in Minneapolis, MN on May 26, 1923. His given name was, James King Aurness.
When he accepted the role of Matt Dillion, he had to dye his naturally blond hair for the role, since dark hair was considered more masculine at the time. Because of his unusual height, many people guesting on the show had to stand on boxes or in ditches to look good in the pictures. He retired from acting at age 71.
He held the record for the longest continuous role (Matt Dillon) portrayed by a single actor (20 years) on prime-time television, until Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers (1982) and Frasier (1993) tied the 20 year record in 2004.
James Arness was a veteran and during his service in World War II, he received the Bronze Star; the Purple Heart; the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze campaign stars; the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Married twice James Arness was the father of 4 children, including his first wife’s son who he adopted.
Many stars were friends with James Arness, including John Wayne who had suggested he be given the role of Matt Dillon, but he considered his younger brother, Peter Graves (Mission Impossible) his best friend.
James Arness died of natural causes in 2011 in Los Angeles.
Miss Kitty Russell, the red-haired owner of Gunsmoke’s Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas was played by Amanda Blake an American actress. Ms. Blake was born on February 20, 1929 in Buffalo, NY. Her given name was Beverly Louise Neill. She was married four times, but had no children.
Before making it in show business, she worked as a telephone operator.
An animal lover, in 1971 she joined with others in Phoenix, Arizona, to form the Arizona Animal Welfare League. The AAWL is now the oldest and largest “no-kill” animal shelter in Arizona. (Ms. Blake’s 2nd husband was an Arizona cattleman.)
Amanda Blake smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day until being diagnosed with oral cancer in 1980. After enduring oral cancer surgery in 1984, the American Cancer Society awarded her with its Courage Award which was presented to her in Washington, DC by President Reagan.
In 1961 she sold her residual rights to Gunsmoke for $100,000.
Ms. Blake was believed to have contracted the AIDS virus from her last husband who was openly bisexual.
Amanda Blake died of AIDS-related hepatitis in 1989 in Sacramento, California.
Chester Goode: Dennis Weaver. Weaver was born June 4, 1924 in Joplin, Mo. His birth name was William Dennis Weaver. A part-American Indian, he was a registered Cherokee, as well as Osage.
He was a struggling actor in Hollywood in 1955, earning $60 a week delivering flowers when he was offered $300 a week for a role in Gunsmoke. After nine years as Chester, who he played with a stiff-legged gait, he was earning $9,000 a week.
Weaver was a veteran and served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
A vegetarian, he served as the president of “Love Is Feeding Everyone” (LIFE), which fed 150,000 needy people a week in Los Angeles County.
Doc Galen Adams was the character played by Milburn Stone. His full name was Hugh Milburn Stone, sometimes known as Milly Stone. He was born July 5, 1904 in Burrton, Kansas. He was married twice and had one daughter.
At one time he sang with Harry James and His Orchestra.
Stone’s uncle was the famous Broadway comedian, Fred Stone. Milburn moved to Los Angeles in 1935 to try his luck in films. He toiled for years and became an “overnight” star in Gunsmoke. He remained a citizen of Dodge City throughout its entire 20-year run (500 episodes), although he was temporarily sidelined by a heart attack in 1971. The ever-durable Stone missed only seven episodes. Milburn won a well-deserved Emmy award in 1968 for his crusty role.
In 1961, he sold his residual rights of Gunsmoke to CBS for $100,000.
Milburn Stone died from a heart attack on June 12, 1980, La Jolla, California.
Festus Haggen, played by Ken Curtis, who was born July 2, 1916, in Lamar, Colorado. His birth name was Curtis Wain Gates.
Curtis began his show business career as a singer in the big-band era, and was a vocalist in the legendary Tommy Dorsey orchestra.
As the son-in-law of director, John Ford, he appeared in many of Ford’s singing westerns. He also appeared in Carnegie Hall with the Sons of the Pioneers.
Curtis was married twice and was the father of two children.
He died on April 28, 1991 in Fresno, California from a heart attack in his sleep.
Quint Asper was played by Burt Reynolds. Burton Leon Reynolds was born February 11, 1936 in Lansing, Michigan.
He was married twice and has one son.
In 1962, Burt Reynolds was added to Gunsmoke, as the half-Comanche blacksmith, Quint Asper. He performed that role in the years just before the departure of Chester Goode and just after the appearance of Festus Haggen.
Reynolds’s latest project is to film a movie with Modern Family’s, Ariel Winter to be filmed in Knoxville, Tennessee in June/July 2016.
Newly O’Brien, gunsmith-turned-deputy in 174 episodes during the last eight seasons of Gunsmoke is played by Buck Taylor. Walter Clarence “Buck” Taylor, III was born on May 13, 1938 in Los Angeles, California.
Taylor was married twice and is the father of 3 children.
He studied art on a scholarship while in college and later was seen sketching during film and TV breaks. An accomplished and well-known western artist who enjoys exploring America’s “Old West” and delving into typical everyday cowboy scenes of hitching horses or setting up camp, he specializes in watercolor. His art is now sought after by collectors.
He and current wife live on a ranch north of Fort Worth, Texas.
Sam Noonan, the bartender at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas was played by Glenn Strange. Strange was born George Glenn Strange in Weed, New Mexico, on August 16, 1899, but grew up a real-life cowboy in Cross Cut, Texas. He was of Indian descent.
Strange was married three times and had four children.
He taught himself the fiddle and guitar at a young age and started performing at local functions as a teen. At various times in his life, this huge, towering 6′ 5” beast of a man worked as a rancher, deputy sheriff and rodeo performer.
He played several monsters in movies including Frankenstein’s monster. Though Boris Karloff was famous for the role, the studio often used Strange’s picture to promote the show. Ironically when Boris Karloff‘s obituary was run in newspapers in 1969 it was with Strange’s picture as Frankenstein’s monster.
He capped off his career with a steady 12 years by playing the role of Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke.
Glenn Strange died on September 20, 1973 of lung cancer.