James Nusser made Louie Pheeters into a magnetizing character
Gunsmoke producers featured Louie Pheeters as often as possible.
The Gunsmoke town drunk Louie Pheeters first appeared in the seventh season episode "Perce."
Played by veteran character actor James Nusser, Louie Pheeters rarely said more than a few lines in his earliest episodes, but it was enough to get audiences hooked on the character.
In 1969, a Hollywood TV critic wrote that Nusser as Louie, gave the role "a special touch," noting that "he makes the screen come alive with his presence."
For that newspaper article, the critic interviewed Gunsmoke producer John Mantley, who said the TV show saw something special in Nusser from the first moment Louie Pheeters was introduced.
After that, any time Mantley saw a screenplay that was suitable to feature Louie Pheeters, he said he’d "buy it in a minute."
For Nusser, Louie Pheeters would become his most memorable character in his onscreen career, which spanned 1951 to 1976.
Mantley said that the popularity of Nusser’s Gunsmoke character actually worked against him, with other hit Western shows like Bonanza refusing to cast Nusser, because it would only remind audiences to tune into Gunsmoke.
Seeing Nusser struggle only made Gunsmoke producers want to feature Nusser in more episodes, and in the eighth season, a script came along that would become the first to center on the town drunk.
In "Louie Pheeters," Nusser’s character convinces himself that he had a bad dream when he witnesses a man drowning. Through the episode’s dramatic arc, though, Louie comes to realize he wasn’t dreaming.
Nusser said the popularity of Louie Pheeters always surprised him, particularly how popular he was with young kids.
"Kids like Louie, and when I ask my wife why, she answers, ‘Louie is a kid,’" Nusser said.
While acting as Louie, Nusser did the opposite of many actors and tried to keep his true self distant from his TV character.
"I don’t understand Louie any more than I understand myself," Nusser said. "I don’t want to know him too well."
Mantley said that the most obvious reason why Gunsmoke started featuring Nusser more went beyond just Louie Pheeters being popular.
Gunsmoke producers deeply admired Nusser, with Mantley describing him as "one of the finest actors in town and one of the most underrated."
Louie Pheeters fans often point to the two-part episode "Nitro" as a favorite, but Mantley said his favorite Pheeters script and a memorable day with Nusser on-set was a 14th season episode called "The Long Night."
"Louie was really sick in this one," Mantley said. "He needs a drink so badly, and he goes into the Long Branch, only to be taunted by the villain. Kitty has a drink up on the bar for him, but the villain wants to play cat and mouse with Louie."
The villain in the episode tells Louie, "My father crawled on his hands and knees for a drink. You crawl."
"Louie crawls, and by this time, he’s so humiliated, he’s lost his need for the glass," Mantley said. "He picks it up, then puts it down and walks away to applause from the crew."
Although Nusser proved himself a fine actor over more than 80 Gunsmoke episodes (including early appearances before he took on the Louie Pheeters role), he never achieved the stardom he spent his career working toward.
"I’d like to be a successful actor," Nusser said in 1969, still holding out hope, after seven years on the TV Western.
And though it hurt him that playing Louie Pheeters cut down his character work on other TV Westerns, Nusser explained why he enjoyed stepping into Louie Pheeters’ shoes.
"Louie’s a bit cynical, but he’s very loyal to his friends – Kitty, Matt, Festus and Doc," Nusser said. "And he’s still sharp, despite the drinking. He knows what’s going on in town and he’s always on the lookout for a ‘Live one’ who will buy a few rounds. Louie can get lost you know. He can be talking to you, and then he’ll just go away."