Kathleen Hite was the first woman TV writer for CBS
From Gunsmoke to The Waltons, her dramatic dialogue kept her busy for decades.
In a very sweet episode of The Waltons called "The Career Girl," Erin Walton takes a job as a switchboard operator to save up enough cash to buy her brother John-Boy a typewriter to chase his dreams.
The writer of this episode was Kathleen Hite, who you could say understood both sides of this story very well, because in her real life, she was a little bit Erin and a little bit John-Boy.
Hite made a great writer for The Waltons because she saw herself in John-Boy, pining to be a writer as a teenager, but like Erin, taking an everyday job as a secretary when she graduated school because when it came time to pursue a writing gig, nobody would hire her.
"I took a job in 1943 at CBS as a secretary just to get inside the Hollywood studio," Hite told the Arizona Republic in 1976.
Hite made a terrible secretary, mixing up messages and misplacing the mail, but during her first week on the job, a producer came to her desk frantic, needing a writer fast.
"Two-and-a-half days later, a producer needed a radio scriptwriter – ANY radio scriptwriter," Hite said. "And there I was."
The radio show that Hite got pulled into was Gunsmoke, but even though she wrote many episodes for the radio show, CBS still didn’t trust her to contribute screenplays when the TV show launched.
What finally persuaded them to take a chance on Hite was the head of the writing department fighting the battle for her until the studio hired her – making her the first woman TV writer for CBS.
"It was on a temporary basis," Hite told The Wichita Beacon in 1970. "Eight years later, I left of my own accord."
As a contributing writer to Gunsmoke, Hite wrote 42 episodes, sometimes struggling to make her ideas work at the typewriter.
She grew to admire John Meston, the prolific writer behind hundreds of Gunsmoke episodes.
"He writes the most spare, the most literate, simple drama I’ve read," Hite told the Alabama Journal in 1961.
One thing both Meston and Hite could agree on was that watching Gunsmoke was painful, because they’d notice every liberty the actors would take in modifying their carefully penned dialog.
Meston avoided watching the show entirely, but Hite didn’t have that willpower.
"I watch the show every week, even if it kills me," Hite said. "And sometimes it can be an awful, painful experience."
It’s easy to sympathize when you recognize that dramatic dialog was Hite’s forte as a writer, the skill that kept her pumping out screenplays for three decades.
"I have great pride in the kind of dialog I write, and when it is tampered with, as it usually is, it incenses me," Hite said. "Now I don’t believe that what I write ought to be inscribed in granite, but change for change’s sake makes me mad."
She said the only way to ever get past that dialog interference in her career would be to become the kind of untouchable writer given complete creative control of a TV show.
"You can’t beat it until you’re big enough," Hite said. "I don’t suppose anybody honks up Rod Serling’s scripts on Twilight Zone."
Later on in her career, Hite left Gunsmoke and came to feel in the Seventies that TV writing was becoming unstable.
At the beginning of her career, she said any show would be given a default three months to try to attract its core audience, but in the Seventies and Eighties, shows would be pulled off air after just two or three episodes.
She saw this as a disservice to both screenwriters and audiences.
"I maintain it takes any series at least 13 weeks to set itself into any form, nature, character – and to set itself into the habits of viewers," Hite said.
Toward the end of her career, The Waltons became the TV show that turned to Hite most often. During the Seventies and the Eighties, she contributed 24 episodes to the family drama, which she considered easy-breezy to write for, compared to Gunsmoke, not because the show was less challenging, but because she saw her family in the Waltons family.
"If the storybook Walton family were moved geographically from West Virginia to Kansas, it could have been a dead-ringer for the real Hite family," Hite said.
Her connection to John-Boy specifically was the strongest.
"John-Boy’s high school class was 1934; so was mine," Hite said. "Though the depression hit us at an impressionable age, neither of us suffered devastating deprivation, but rather the caution and concern of a close-knit family. John-Boy’s driving ambition was to go to college and become a writer. So was mine."