Gunsmoke and the shift from radio to TV
The transition wasn't particularly smooth for those involved.
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.