Amanda Blake was scared to work with Bette Davis on Gunsmoke
She was “absolutely petrified” at first, according to James Arness.
Image: The Everett Collection
Over its 20-year run, Gunsmoke had some of the most famous faces in showbusiness play characters in Dodge City. Some were on before they hit it big, others after they had already become household names.
Actors like Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfuss and Jodie Foster were all on Gunsmoke. Even prolific TV producer Aaron Spelling appeared in one episode.
One of the most memorable guest stars on the series was Bette Davis in "The Jailer." She played the matriarch of a family of outlaws who holds Matt responsible for the hanging of her husband.
Her sons, led by a conniving Bruce Dern, kidnap Kitty knowing that Matt will come to her aid. When he does, they imprison him. Davis's character, Etta Stone, vows to hang Marshal Dillon just like her husband.
It takes a great performer to play someone so evil. Casting director Pam Polifroni knew exactly who could embody that part. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she related how she pitched the idea to director Vincent McEveety when he asked for casting choices: "I said, 'Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it very much, but how about someone like Bette Davis?' And he said, 'Oh, come on, get real.'"
But Polifroni suggested they should at least try. As it turned out, Davis was a fan of the show and wanted to do it.
When the actors learned who they would be working with that week, they couldn’t believe it. James Arness told the Archive that Davis "was dynamite" and that Amanda Blake "was absolutely petrified at the idea of working with this great lady."
Davis and Blake's characters share many tense scenes together. "Amanda was scared to death," Polifroni said, but added that "they really did become great friends."
After her initial fear subsided, Amanda Blake got to know Bette Davis as more than just the legendary performer she admired. They were just two actors in a scene together and, as Arness put it, Davis was "right down to earth, no monkey business at all, and she went out of her way to work well with Amanda."