Steve Eighinger Column Sig

If I have one thing to be grateful for during this pandemic, it’s how my appreciation of the old western “Gunsmoke” has grown.

About six months ago when much of our regular TV viewing and a large portion of live sporting events had either been wiped out or greatly altered, I stumbled across a couple of satellite networks that broadcast daily episodes of Marshal Matt Dillon, sidekick Chester Goode, good friend Doc Adams and Miss Kitty.

I never realized the quality of this “adult-themed” series when I originally watched it as a kid, which was mostly in the early and mid-1960s. At that time, I was mainly interested in Marshal Dillon chasing bad guys and did not appreciate mow much the show’s storylines were so far ahead of their time. After rediscovering this classic program, I now realize why it lasted 21 years on network television. Most of those seasons it was at or near the top of the list of most-watched series.

Watching “Gunsmoke” now as an adult, I can see how the show’s emphasis was different than any other western at the time. “Gunsmoke” did not rely so much on physical confrontation and gun battles as it did character studies and issue-driven themes. The program’s groundbreaking approach with a variety of social conflicts was impressive, and probably not fully appreciated until years — maybe decades — down the road.

If ever a TV show was perfectly cast it was “Gunsmoke,” with James Arness as Marshal Dillon, a hulking figure who left no doubt where he stood when it came to right and wrong. Dennis Weaver was equally perfect as his good-natured assistant, Chester, who about 10 years into the series was replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen. Weaver left “Gunsmoke” to explore other acting ventures.

Milburn Stone as Doc and Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty filled their roles with the perfect doses of cantankerous town physician and hardened — but soft-hearted — saloon proprietor.

Often lost in the outlaw-chasing and bar-room brawling was the tongue-in-cheek comedy “Gunsmoke” exerted. Chester was especially gifted in this area. Here are some examples:

— Commenting on the often grumpy disposition of Doc Adams: “What’s the matter, Doc? Someone pull you through a knot hole?”

— On building a pot of coffee: “Most people just don’t know how to make good coffee. In the first place, they boil the water before they put the coffee in. Any fool knows you gotta put the coffee in the cold water and bring them both to a boil together. That way you get all of the flavor. Worst thing they do, they throw away the old grounds after using them once. What they don’t know is that they are throwing away the best part. You got to keep them old grounds and you add a little fresh coffee every morning and let her boil. Shoot, you don’t make a cup, you build a pot. You don’t really get a good pot until you’ve been usin’ it about a week. Then it’s coffee.”

— On a long ride with Marshal Dillon, Chester declares, “Why I’m so hungry, my stomach is growing teeth.”

Festus picked right up where Chester left off after he took over as Marshal Dillon’s deputy. The reflections Festus supplied became legendary:

— “This here (stew) will grow hair on your elbows.”

— “He ain’t got the gumption to pound sand down a rat hole.”

— “I feel better than a barn rooster on a prime hoot.”

— “When you learn a thing a day you store up smart.”

— “Quieter than a gagged gopher.”

— “Sincere as a $5 funeral.”

For the record, there were 635 episodes of Gunsmoke and never once did Marshal Dillon kiss longtime girlfriend Miss Kitty. I could never figure out that part of the show, either when I was young or right now. There was never any real explanation why the romance between Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty was downplayed, outside of the occasional hug.

Sadly, the only surviving regular cast member of “Gunsmoke” is Buck Taylor, 82, who played another Dillon sidekick, Newly O’Brien. Taylor was part of the series for its last seven seasons.

Country recording star Toby Keith is famous for his “I Should Have Been A Cowboy” offering, a tribute to guys like Matt Dillon, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Its opening lines targeted “Gunsmoke,” and I always smile when I hear him sing:

I bet you’ve never heard ol’ Marshal Dillon say,

Miss Kitty, have you ever thought of runnin’ away?

Settlin’ down, would you marry me?

If I asked you twice and begged you, pretty please?’

She’d have said, “Yes”, in a New York minute,

They never tied the knot, his heart wasn’t in it,

He just stole a kiss as he rode away,

He never hung his hat up at Kitty’s place.

Of course, Matt never kissed Kitty, but even watching reruns from many, many years ago I’m still holding out hope.

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