7 things you never knew about the great Amanda Blake of Gunsmoke

"Kitty" was an apt name for this feline lover.

Image: The Everett Collection

What would Gunsmoke have been without Miss Kitty? We found out in season 20. Amanda Blake left the western after its 19th season. The network canceled the series in season 20, in a move that has to be considered more than coincidence.

As the spitfire saloon owner of Dodge City, Miss Kitty quickly became a fan favorite. The redhead's will-they-or-not relationship with Matt Dillon kept romantics on the edge of their couches for two decades.

Born on February 20, 1929, Blake portrayed Kitty Russell for a third of her life. She left us too soon at the age of 60 in 1989. Outside of her acting career, Blake worked as an animal activist and promoted cancer awareness. 

Let's take a look at some fascinating facts from her life.

Watch Gunsmoke on MeTV!

Monday - Saturday at 1 PM & 1:30 PM

*available in most MeTV markets

1. She was born Beverly Louise Neill.

Amanda Blake is not her real name. An only child and daughter of a banker, Beverly Louise Neill came into this world in Buffalo, New York, where she lived until a teenager. She then moved to California. Neill was a descendant of Revolutionary War hero Kate Barry, who warned that the British were coming prior to the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. She first worked as a telephone operator.

Blake attended Pomona College for a time. She later took a job as a telephone operator earning $40, which helped hone her diction skills. That led to some radio work and performances doing dramatic readings at a local women's club. 

Image: The Everett Collection

3. She was signed by MGM studios as a "Greer Garson replacement."

Blake began her dramatic acting career on the stage, performing summer stock in New England. MGM discovered her and signed the young Blake to a contract. The studio saw her as its next Greer Garson, a 1940s MGM film star who earned five consecutive Best Actress nominations at the Oscars. Blake made her screen debut in 1950 in the MGM picture Stars in My Crown.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Jan Shepard was her roommate.

Jan Shepard was a familiar face on television westerns, appearing several times of shows such as The Virginian, Laramie, Rawhide and, indeed, Gunsmoke. Her time on Gunsmoke was a reunion of old friends, as Shepard and Blake once lived together as roommates. As Shepard recalled in a 2018 interview, Blake, "a frisky lady," would dress in character to go for her auditions on Gunsmoke. Shepard was present when Blake got the call telling her she had won the role of Miss Kitty.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. She brought a lion to the set of Gunsmoke.

It's a good thing cowboys don't ride zebras. In 1974, in her final season on Gunsmoke, series star Amanda Blake brought her pet lion to work. His name was Kemo. The incident made headlines. Amanda Blake's Lion Upsets 'Gunsmoke' Set, declared The Toledo Blade on February 27, 1974. The headline sensationalized things a bit. Kemo was but a wee cub. And the "upset" was more of a cuddle party and adorable noise disturbance. Read more about the story here.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. She was one of the first people to breed cheetahs in captivity.

Amanda Blake may have played a character named Kitty, but off-camera she devoted her life to another type of feline. Unbeknownst to many people, the actress was a successful animal breeder. In fact, she was one of the first people on the planet to successfully breed cheetahs in captivity. So how does one go from acclaimed actress to innovative cat breeder? After Gunsmoke wrapped in the 1970s, Blake decided to spend more time devoted to promoting animal welfare. Blake also had a wild animal compound at her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lived in retirement. The actress kept Kemo on the grounds with other large cats. Along with her second husband, Frank Gilbert, Blake used the compound to experiment with breeding cheetahs. Learn more about her feline breeding.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. She was a big traveler.

Blake loved to explore the globe, venturing to the Galapagos Islands and Kenya. She visited Africa several times. Late in life, she settled on a 20-acre ranch in Galt, California, operated by her friend and animal trainer Pat Derby. The PAWS charity welcomed former Hollywood animals to retire on the ranch, such as Christopher the cougar, who was in Lincoln-Mercury car commercials.

Image: The Everett Collection

Save with
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?
Close

18 Comments

Post a comment
Glenn 10 days ago
I lived in Phoenix in 1974. There was a small bar on the corner of Cave Creek Rd and Beardsley Rd that a few patrons claimed it was owned by Amanda Blake. Can anyone here verify if fact or fiction ?
Rounds2 23 days ago
Hey Gang, Enjoy Gunsmoke? Remember Miss Kitty, Matt, Doc, Festus, Chester, Thad, Newly.
Come on by our forum we have a lot to see and read.
gunsmokegang.proboards.com
srrainwater 1 month ago
Wonderful lady and exciting life
Donald 1 month ago
Wow. Big surprise to me to hear she died from AIDS. I was a huge western fan especially of Gunsmoke. I was in Colorado in 1989 and remember her obituary but no mention of AIDS. So tragic.
GoUTVols1961 Donald 1 month ago
She contracted it from her first husband who was bisexual.
Donald GoUTVols1961 10 days ago
Thanks for the update.
Pacificsun 1 month ago
In terms of animal activism, I wonder if she knew Tippi Hedren (of Alfred Hitchcock movie fame) or if they were too disparate in ages. In character, "Kitty" had a certain spit & fire about her, that was pretty unusual for that day & age. Too many female western heroines were sweet and demure. My dad LOVED westerns. The stories and drama provided tons of escapism, and he especially enjoyed Amanda Blake and James Arness together!

Great article MeTV, thanks!!
Tampammm Pacificsun 1 month ago
Interesting about the animal activism. Some others I know involved in that are/were Doris Day, Betty White and Kim Novak also. In fact, being a big Doris fan, over the years I made a number of donations to The Doris Day Animal League.

Love the Westerns also, and Gunsmoke remains my all time favorite. Loved the supporting roles on the show of "Miss Kitty", "Doc", and "Chester", especially.
Pacificsun Tampammm 1 month ago
I agree.
I think what was totally surprising was Ms. Blake's interest in Big Cats! Ms. Hedren too. But you're absolutely right, all of them were pioneers in the concept of animal activism! And brought a lot of attention to the issues!
benbear Pacificsun 1 month ago
Actually, there was only 1 year separating Amanda Blake and Tippi Hedren in age.
texasluva 1 month ago
I always liked her grits and determination. Don't even mess with Kitty. Even if you mess with Dillon, Doc or Festus you will get the evil-eye and a boot outta her saloon. She's Ace-High and some kinda gal.
Pacificsun texasluva 1 month ago
A lot of guys' fantasy (no doubt) back in the day! LOL!!
texasluva Pacificsun 1 month ago
I laughed after I read and posted. Sounded like I liked the grits she made rather then grit she had LOL. Like their vs there, your vs you're, etc. I could easily erased/copy/paste but hate to lose my place. You best make sure when you put the move on her she's gonna like it. Ha ha......
Pacificsun texasluva 1 month ago
I really miss the "edit" feature in this comment platform they're currently using! Even when Disqus limited it to 7 days, that was fine. One time I really wanted to change just one word in my answer. And I investigated the raw HTML (on the side-bar) and actually figured out to change it, and did. But all the effort wasn't worth it though! LOL!! I often have the word police chasing me, so have to be careful!
texasluva Pacificsun 1 month ago
Hey don't feel bad. I got a MeTV'er PG13 montitor calling me out for being 12. What can I say. I got lost. LOL. Yeah it would be nice with an edit. Delete? No I want to edit. Two letters got skewed .
Utzaake 1 month ago
"All right! Now, go see Miss Kitty and she'll fix you up with a nice hooker." ~Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing in Friends~
3. Greer Garson replacement? Following a personality with a cornea-burning smile is a tough act.
Pacificsun Utzaake 1 month ago
They were both very beautiful!
Runeshaper 1 month ago
Miss Kitty = AWESOME! She was such a BIG part of Gunsmoke and it seems like Amanda Blake lived a truly wonderful life. I loved her as Miss Kitty. It must have been cool for Jan Shepard to be there when Amanda was informed that she had gotten the part. It's crazy to even imagine that a show could run for 20 years, even a show so fantastic as Gunsmoke, and I give the whole cast & crew a lot of credit for that. I really admire how Amanda cared for animals and promoted cancer awareness :)
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?