Saturday, March 19, 2016

When Matt and Kitty and Doc and Chester were young

The other day I bought the first season of “Gunsmoke” on DVD.

That’s 39 episodes – remember when a TV show had that many episodes per season?

I didn’t buy the DVD set because I’m a huge fan of “Gunsmoke.” By the time I was old enough to be allowed to watch it, it had expanded to an hour. And although I remember some things about it – Burt Reynolds, when he was a regular; an episode in which Aneta Corsaut, Helen Crump on Andy Griffith’s show, played a nun; and an episode that introduced me to Bruce Dern, as a killer (surprise!) who, in the show’s climax, wielded a pitchfork as he chased after a little boy who had seen him commit a murder.

Of course Marshall You-Know-Who shot Bruce down, but I probably came close to wetting my pants as I watched that scene, being at that time about the same age as the kid Bruce was tormenting.

But “Gunsmoke” never meant that much to me, especially as the years went by and as the episodes more and more seemed to be produced in a molasses factory.

Then a couple of things happened.

First, one of the cable stations showed a few episodes from the show’s early days, when it was only a half-hour, in the days when most dramatic TV episodes seemed to be only a half-hour and seemed to work better that way. The shorter “Gunsmoke” was better and had scripts by people like Sam Peckinpah.

Then I began listening to some of the “Gunsmoke” radio episodes that preceded the TV show. Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, later better known as Cannon (and to me as the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s adventures). Parley Baer, who was everywhere in those days, was Chester, and Doc was played by Howard McNear, better known as Floyd the Barber on (once again) Andy Griffith’s show. As Doc, McNear was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd. (Then again, pretty near everyone was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd, except maybe Barney Fife.) Georgia Ellis was Kitty.

Conrad portrayed Dillon as a lonely man with a sometimes grim outlook on life. That’s no surprise, considering that some of the stories were grim. I particularly remember one in which several guys robbed a family and scalped all its members, hoping that Indians would be blamed, until Matt saw through the scheme.

“Gunsmoke” is one of a number of examples of how dramatic network radio became much better, much less hokey just as TV killed off big-time radio.

So far I’ve watched five episodes of the first season of the TV version of “Gunsmoke.” They all hold up.

I had known that John Wayne introduced the first episode – he’d worked with James Arness and liked him – but I’d never seen the intro, which is cute, with Wayne in full Charming, Self-Deprecating Mode.

The first few episodes begin with Matt walking around Boot Hill and speaking to us in a philosophical voiceover. Mad magazine kidded the pants off this in its satire of the show. (“This here is Boot Hill. Many men are buried here. Some ’cause they were good, some ’cause they were bad. But all, ’cause they were dead, by George!”)

A couple of things I noticed right off on these early shows:

1. Doc, especially in the first episode, looks as if great (if somewhat obvious) pains have been taken to make him look old, which isn’t surprising, considering that Milburn Stone, who played him, was a little past 50 years old at the time. (The comedic corollary might be Andy Clyde, who played an older guy in Mack Sennett talking shorts while Clyde was still quite young – he also was Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick – but needed less and less old-guy makeup as time went by and he became a semi-regular on “Lassie” and “The Real McCoys.”)

2. In addition to being a fine performer, Amanda Blake, as Kitty, was really really cute, not quite as seemingly hard-bitten as the Kitty of the later shows. (I don’t blame her for being hard-bitten – all those years, and she still hadn’t lassoed Matt.)

Of course there’s also Dennis Weaver, doing a fine job as Chester, though I’m not surprised he eventually left the show so he could play characters whose IQs had at least two digits.

The original producer-director of the TV show was a guy named Charles Marquis Warren. I’ve heard that he was fired because he was apparently something of a martinet and the cast hated him. He wasn’t banished from the TV prairie for long, though: A few years later, he was running “Rawhide.” (I don’t know what Clint “Rowdy Yates” Eastwood thought of him.)

And if that name seems familiar, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful 8” is Major Marquis Warren. From what I know about Tarantino, I doubt this is a coincidence.

Four of the five episodes I’ve watched feature the kind of journeyman character actors who seem in short supply these days.

In the first episode, Paul Richards plays a psychopath who likes to goad guys into drawing first so he can kill them. At one point he wounds Matt pretty badly. If you wanted a psychopath back in the 1950s and 1960s, Richards was one of the go-to guys, though he differed from some of the others because he sometimes showed at least a hint of vulnerability.

Another episode featured the incomparable John Dehner. If you watched television for any length of time back then, Dehner was hard to miss. He could be a psychopath or an executive or an amiable con man or, hell, just plain anything you wanted.

Also appearing in separate episodes: two of the big bad guys of early TV, and I mean that literally: the heavy-set (to put it mildly) James Westerfield and Robert Middleton.

Westerfield wasn’t the psycho type; he was more apt to be the town’s chief mover and shaker, a guy who could afford to hire psycho types to work for him. His characters probably had file drawers full of resumes of especially dangerous desperadoes.

Middleton could go either way – he could play a businessman (he was even a judge accused of murder once on “Perry Mason”) or one of the scariest son-of-a-bitches you could ever meet. (I’m thinking of his role in the movie “The Desperate Hours,” in which he breaks out of prison with Humphrey Bogart.)

The last actor on this list was a true one-of-a-kind: Royal Dano. He was tall, dark and often poignant. He plays the title character in “Obie Tater,” a good-natured but touchingly naïve and pathetic guy who might or might not have a lot of gold hidden away.

I know what you might be thinking: Why doesn’t this lousy so-and-so post pictures of these guys so I can find out whether I’ve seen them?

That’s a good point, and in years past I used to post such pictures. Then the company that’s behind this blog “improved” things, which made it more difficult for me to do that. (And I’m not the most technologically gifted person around anyway.)

So I apologize and just ask that if you’re really interested, Google these guys, and chances are you’ll find a picture and say, “Hey, now I know who that lousy so-and-so was talking about! But he’s still a lousy so-and-so!”

I’d like to mention one last name, and don’t waste your time looking for his picture because he wasn’t a performer but a writer:

John Meston.

He was the guy behind most of the radio scripts, and at least many of those scripts were adapted for episodes of the TV show. I don’t know what if anything John Meston did before and after “Gunsmoke,” but given the superlative quality of his work, I’m not sure he ever needed to write anything else to prove that when it came to this kind of material, his aim was truest.

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