Gunsmoke and the shift from radio to TV

The transition wasn't particularly smooth for those involved.

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When Gunsmoke debuted in 1955, it was only the second TV western pitched to grown-ups, preceded only by The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which premiered four days prior. Before then, only cowboys for kids populated the tubes, with the likes of Hopalong Cassidy and The Roy Rogers Show cornering the market. CBS, the network due to air the show, was unsure what an adult western would look like. One clue, though, came from the Gunsmoke radio show, which brought with it both a built-in audience and a whole heap of casting dilemmas.

By the time Gunsmoke hit the screen, some viewers were already familiar with the tone and characters from its earlier format as a radio program. The radio version debuted three years prior, and would run concurrently with the television program until the former's cancellation in 1961. But because it was already a known commodity, the creators of the TV show had to pay careful consideration when choosing the faces of their characters.

According to a February 1955 article from the Evening Star, CBS executives auditioned four "hero-types" for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon. Among the four was William Conrad, who originated the role on the Gunsmoke radio program. Despite his history with the character, it was quickly made clear to Conrad that he was not a shoe-in for the job. According to the actor himself, he lost out on the gig because he didn't "look like Gary Cooper." He'd faced similar objection three years prior when auditioning as the voice of Matt Dillon. On the air, the obstacle was viewers' familiarity with Conrad as a "heavy," or bad guy, an issue he quickly overcame, embodying the voice of the heroic US Marshal. However, when it came time to appear on TV, Conrad was not able to leap those hurdles onto the screen.

This was one of many issues that plagued the series creators in shepherding the story from airwave to the tube. CBS was under the impression that this new, grown-up genre of horse operas would scare off kids, a key demographic for their coprorate sponsors. In time though, Gunsmoke was able to distinguish itself from the likes of The Lone Ranger through its emotional storytelling and compelling drama.

Fortunately, none of these problems kept Gunsmoke from being one of the most successful series of all time. Until Law and Order: SVU broke the record in 2019, Gunsmoke was the longest-running, primetime, live action television series, sustaining an unthinkable 20 seasons.

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25 Comments

GOOSEYGOOSE9 7 months ago
William
Conrad had replaced
Jack Webb
At Warner bros
Gitch64 13 months ago
Like Gunsmoke Tv show the radio broadcast of Gunsmoke is also excellent
Adanor 13 months ago
Radio as theater of the mind had great latitude in what they could do with actors and actresses who had great voices, great sound effects, and interesting scripts. Then there was television and suddenly in the Westerns there had to be real horses and men who looked like they were born riding them. William Conrad did not look like a cowboy and so he did not get to ride in that saddle. But he still had a remarkable career which included starring on Cannon. And in that role, he didn't even have to get on a horse.
MrsPhilHarris 13 months ago
I prefer the radio version of Gunsmoke. I hear listen to the show from time to time.
JHP MrsPhilHarris 13 months ago
yep me too- XM ch 148 is my late night in the sack to zzzzz station
JHP MrsPhilHarris 13 months ago
and I do not carry water for XM ch 148 - some of the shows are so darn annoying
MrsPhilHarris JHP 13 months ago
Lol! Personally I just go on-line and find one of the sites that do compilations like An Evening Of Old Time Radio, Old Man Radio, etc.
JHP MrsPhilHarris 13 months ago
Yeah I got xm and a C Crane fm transmiiter and a C Crane radio to listen to at night:)

Andybandit 13 months ago
It was so cool that Gunsmoke and Bonanza were on the air for so long.
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Bapa1 13 months ago
Yes, Kemo Sabe.
cperrynaples 13 months ago
What MeTV star played Doc on radio?
Lantern cperrynaples 13 months ago
Mayberry's own Floyd the barber, Howard McNear!

"Parley Baer as Chester, Howard McNear as Doc, and Georgia Ellis as Kitty".
cperrynaples 13 months ago
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The one and the same. McNear and Baer were both prolific radio performers. Their paths would cross on a few radio programs. Gunsmoke being the most prominent, since they were principal cast members. Although they guest starred on some programs so often, they might as well have been considered a regular (except that they usually played a different character each time.

McNear was on “The Andy Griffith Show” from the beginning. Baer joined later. Sadly, the two old friends only appeared in three episodes together, before McNear’s health issues forced him to leave the show.
TheKodakKid cperrynaples 13 months ago
McNear probably came the closest of the radio cast to looking the part for TV.
TheKodakKid 13 months ago
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JHP Lantern 13 months ago
Howard was all over the place on radio - old time -
Deleted 13 months ago
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JeffPaul76 13 months ago
Walter Tetley, Of Tetley Tea Fame?
JHP 13 months ago
ahhhh don't know his voice never changed during the "P" time period of a male - he played a few different characters on a few old time radio shows
JeffPaul76 13 months ago
I see by the picture that William Conrad was not as heavy as he would be when he would play "Cannon" or Raymond Burr when he was Ironside, and confined or so it seemed to a wheelchair. I don't know how or why Burr let himself get so fat and heavy when was "Perry Mason" & got even heavier for "Ironside".
justjeff 13 months ago
He actually lost weight to get the role of Mason, and once the series was a success he just let the weight come back on. By that point, I figure the producers wouldn't have hassled him - after all, he was pulling in the viewers whether he was fat, thin or in-between...
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