James Arness knew that the ''Gunsmoke'' radio series was integral to the television adaptation's success

"We started up miles ahead of where a new show begins."

When moving into a new medium, there's always a fear that something might get lost in translation. While shows like The Goldbergs and The Gene Autry Show were able to enjoy success after being adapted into television series, it's completely understandable for the fanbase, and even the developers, to be nervous that the program might not be done justice; or worse, that it wouldn't be the same on television as it was on the radio. 

However, series star James Arness was aware that the success of the television adaptation of Gunsmoke was, at least in part, due to the popularity of the radio series. He spoke to The Tennessean about the show's success and expressed, "I don't think any weekly ever came to television with the heavy-duty start-up we had. Gunsmoke had been on the radio for a number of years and had become an extremely distinguished kind of radio drama. It was almost in the nature of a cult following. There were Gunsmoke radio fans who never missed a show."

Arness explained that Gunsmoke's content on the radio lent itself well to the television series when it finally aired. He continued, "There were Gunsmoke radio fans who never missed a show. When they decided to make it into a TV series we had a tremendous backlog of material that these guys had developed over a number of years."

Not only did the radio series assist the creators and writers of Gunsmoke, but it also helped Arness a great deal as he got to know his character. He said, "The old story material was the most important background material I got because I was learning about the character and people and pace and how they related."

He concluded, "This is what I attribute the success of Gunsmoke to. Normally you make a pilot and go on the air but we started up miles ahead of where a new show begins."

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8 Comments

TubularTom 1 month ago
There are 480 episodes of Gunsmoke on radio (1952-61), plus many extras, available free to listen or download from the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Certified_Gunsmoke

I've listened to half of them so far, and the writing, acting, themes, and sound effects are considerably better than the TV show. As others have said, Conrad's acting range is much wider than Arness, who seems rather wooden by comparison. Conrad's Dillon is more nuanced, cynical, tired of killing and disgusted by the violence around him. He's also surprisingly funny sometimes, especially in scenes with Chester (Parley Baer) and Doc (the great Howard McNear), both Andy Griffith alumni). The scenes with this talented triumvirate are gems.

The tone of the radio show is more realistic and gritty. Things don't always turn out as planned, Matt makes mistakes sometimes, even fatal ones. In one episode, he accidentally shoots and kills an old lawman friend. In earlier episodes, Doc is almost ghoulish, interested mainly in his autopsy fee. Later, we learn Doc's backstory and the reason why he changed his name to Adams.

Kitty, played by the relatively unknown but wonderful Georgia Ellis, doesn't own the Long Branch Saloon until about halfway through the series. Before that, she's just a saloon girl, and early on, it's implied that she is nothing but a fallen woman, a prostitute, whom the respectable townswomen of Dodge shun. A relationship with Matt is implied, but so far, apparently not consummated!

The regular cast of supporting actors in a multitude of roles include the great John Dehner (another Andy Griffith alum), Larry Dobkin, the woman of a thousand voices Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin (The Outer Limits control voice) and many others.

Often, it's hard to believe that the action is actually taking place in a radio studio, and not out on the plains of Kansas in the 1880s. The sound effects are so good that you forget Matt and Chester are not really riding across the prairie tracking bank robbers or engaged in a shootout.

Incredibly, the same guy, John Meston, wrote every one of the first 200+ episodes, before transitioning to writing supervisor. And the producer and director, Norman MacDonald, was also the producer of the TV show simultaneously for 7 years!

The sound quality is generally very good, although it's somewhat uneven from show to show depending on the source. Many are from the original transcription discs - 16" vinyl records distributed to radio stations or through the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS). Others are from private collections on tape (reel to reel, audio cassette) and digital formats (MP3) that old time radio collectors have preserved and shared with each other over the years. So be prepared for some tape hiss and some less than perfect sound.

But Gunsmoke on radio is a tremendously valuable cultural heritage that should be preserved and appreciated.
TheKodakKid 1 month ago
Several of the radio scripts got adapted for television. There were differences between the two. Characters weren’t exactly the same from radio to television, but pretty much the same at their core.
Andybandit 1 month ago
Gunsmoke, the one that was on TV is a good show.
justjeff 1 month ago
... and, as I keep saying... *that's* why I prefer the radio version with William Conrad...
MikefromJersey justjeff 1 month ago
Me too, William Conrad is 100 times the actor Arness was, no disrespect to Jim.
I remember he was in The Racket (1951) as a crooked copper and he effortlessly
stole every scene with Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, William Talman.
It was textbook, watch all the bits of business he does, the way he
artfully removes shell casings from his gun near the end, he should
have been charged with Grand Theft Movie.
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