Jeanette Nolan was far more like her Gunsmoke character Dirty Sally than a Hollywood star
The actress lived in the mountains without electricity or plumbing, alongside her husband from Wagon Train.
Gunsmoke aired for two decades but spawned just one spin-off. Several characters were worthy of their own series. Imagine Dr. Galen Adams, Frontier Medicine or The Haggens or Quint.
But, no, the lone television child of Gunsmoke was Dirty Sally, a 1974 Western about a haggard, cantankerous woman traveling to California with a mule named Worthless and a spirited young man. The Sally character had been introduced in the Gunsmoke episode "Pike," played by Hollywood veteran Jeanette Nolan.
The two-part "Pike" proved to be one of the more beloved latter episodes of Gunsmoke, earning a Western Heritage Award for Fictional Television Drama, a "Bronze Wrangler," the sort of cowboy equivalent to an Oscar. Despite the strong foundation and acting pedigree, Dirty Sally lasted one short season.
After starting in radio, Nolan made her film debut in Orson Welles' 1948 adaptation of Macbeth. The scheming Lady Macbeth was a far cry from Dirty Sally. Yet, the personality of fictional Sally fell much closer to Nolan's true spirit than Shakespeare and red carpet premieres.
"I feel very close to [Sally]," Nolan admitted to the papers when Dirty Sally was in production. "She's the embodiment of the old American spirit of individuality — and I've always been an individual."
Indeed she was. While raised in a big coastal city — her father was a union official in Los Angeles — Nolan possessed a mind for history and the open plain. In her youth, she was obsessed with old Russia. The first money she earned from acting immediately went towards the purchase of a furry Cossack hat.
"I was a hippie before hippies were invented," Nolan once joked to a journalist in 1973.
Nothing quite exemplifies Nolan's proximity to Dirty Sally quite like her home life. Did you know she was married to a star from Wagon Train? Nolan wed John McIntire in 1935, a quarter-century before he took the role of wagon train leader Christopher Hale, following the deal of Ward Bond.
The two lovers were true pioneers — in the literal sense. After tying the knot, the couple looked to move away from city life. They settled on Montana, where McIntire had some roots. The husband and wife found a log cabin nearby the Yaak River. They had no electricity and, for at least three decades, no plumbing. They fished, hunted, and farmed on their 640 acres for their food. Certainly, playing 19th-century pioneers was no stretch.
No wonder that McIntire appeared in the premiere episode of Dirty Sally. Nolan remained his wife until his death in 1991. She passed seven years later.
When you see Sally stealing scenes on Gunsmoke, know that Nolan was the perfect performer for this brief, beloved character.