How the Kennedy-King assassinations changed Gunsmoke

Network pressure shifted the series.

Art only really imitates life sometimes. Other times, art reacts to life or shifts with it. 

In a three-month stretch in 1968, both Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. While these deaths affected American life in the immediate, their ramifications in the art and entertainment world weren't truly felt until later in the decade.

Gunsmoke was an action series which had to be without violence for some years in the late '60s. While the show kicked off with saloon brawls and shootouts in 1955, by the latter part of the following decade, it had been effectively neutered by network intervention. 

In 1970, Gunsmoke slowly began reintroducing the violence of the Wild West back into its scripts. Associated Press writer Bob Thomas was invited onto the set to interview James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon) on the day of their first new action sequence.

"That's the first fight we've had in a long time," Arness told the journalist, "and I suspect that the network will cut it out of the finished show."

Just like many other TV series, Gunsmoke lost its edge in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK in '68. These back-to-back murders of high-profile public figures made networks afraid that audiences would find fictional violence distasteful. With a tense cultural climate in the aftermath of both politically motivated killings, shows like Gunsmoke weren't allowed to feature nearly as much gunplay. 

By the time Gunsmoke was filming its 16th season, things were beginning to return to normal in Dodge City.

"We have a little more freedom, but not much," said Arness. "I can understand the reasons for cutting down violence, but I must say it makes it damned hard to film a Western when you can't use fists or guns."

Despite the restrictions placed upon it, Gunsmoke continued to grow in the ratings. In 1969, it was the second-biggest show on television, regularly drawing 14.5 million viewers. 

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16 Comments

Cougar90 27 days ago
Add to those deaths you had the war in Vietnam. Between the two assassinations it was announced that for one week in May, 1968, that 543 Americans had been killed. In one week!!
Cougar90 26 days ago
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KawiVulc 27 days ago
The other day I followed a semi for a couple miles with about an 8 foot National Quick Draw Association logo on the rear end that featured a huge pair of crossed six shooters.... wonder how many snowflakes that melted along the way.
GOOSEYGOOSE9 28 days ago
John F.Kennedy,Martin Luther King as well as Robert F.Kennedy were assassinated in the 1960’s
Malcolm X in 1965.
Add him to the political murders!
Runeshaper 28 days ago
Says A LOT about the show right here.
McGillahooala 28 days ago
It’s a shame that politics has to infiltrate entertainment and you’re left with essentially watching an hour long public service announcement.
Bapa1 28 days ago
"Hi, I'm Marshall Matt Dillon, and when I'm not gunning down varmits, I enjoy the taste of these cigarettes. Hey kids, tell your parents to buy LM Cigarettes!"
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Moverfan justjeff 24 days ago
I prefer the bubble gum cigars myself...but lord, are those suckers difficult to light...!
Coldnorth Moverfan 23 days ago
What about the chocolate cigarettes? They were popular years ago. They tasted awful and imagine trying to keep your hand and clothes clean when you did get them lit
Rob justjeff 22 days ago
I’ve been thinking about taking up smoking, this cinches it!
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