How James Arness kept Gunsmoke from becoming “gaudy” in 1966

How old James Arness was when he first started Gunsmoke

CBS decided in 1966 that Gunsmoke would start airing in color, but James Arness was adamant about keeping the show’s gritty appearance intact.

Gunsmoke was on the air for just under 20 years (and it ran for a total of 20 seasons) between 1955 and 1975.This is a feat which has only been accomplished by a handful of shows in the history of television.

In order for any show, let alone an old western from the ‘50s, to last on the air for as long as Gunsmoke did, the show had to adapt to a myriad of changes over the years.

Perhaps even more so than many of the modern television shows which we know and love today.

Gunsmoke and its cast definitely knew how to adapt to the changing tides. This is evident in the fact that it switched from an audio-only radio format to a fully-fledged radio production and that it switched from its initial short form 30-minute format to an hour-long drama.

There were also other changes that the show had to face during the course of its enormously-long run.

However, these changes were not always welcomed. In 1966, CBS decided that Gunsmoke would start filming and airing its hour-long episodes in color.

CBS had actually been one of the slowest adopters of the color television movement.

And although shows like The Marriage and An Evening with Fred Astaire already started airing in color in the mid-‘50s, audiences were still skeptical when fan-favorites like Gunsmoke jumped on the bandwagon almost a decade later.

Gunsmoke’s star, James Arness, was aware that too much change at one time could impact the show’s popularity in a negative way, so when the network also suggested switching to a 90-minute format in 1966, he pushed back.

Arness also promised fans of the show that the Gunsmoke team “kept the show from becoming gaudy” and that they would maintain the “drab and dirty” look of Dodge City even after the switch to color.

Examining the biggest Gunsmoke changes over the years

Since Gunsmoke was on the air for so long, it can be difficult to remember how much the show had changed over the course of its 20-season run.

Some of the most drastic changes in Gunsmoke history can be summarized as follows:

Years Gunsmoke seasons Change
From 1955 to 1961 From season one to season six 30-minute episodes, shot in black and white
From 1961 to 1966 From season six to season 11 Switch to hour-long episodes
From 1966 to 1975 From season 12 to season 20 Switch to color
From 1987 Airing of several made-for-television movies

How many episodes of Gunsmoke were shot in color?

When Arness was asked about the longevity of Gunsmoke in an interview with KFVS in 1959 (when Gunsmoke had just passed the 150-episode mark) he answered “Well, I hope it goes on forever”.

And although the show did not end up lasting quite that long, it did make it to a total of 635 episodes by the time that the Gunsmoke series finale episode first aired on March 31, 1975.

Of these 635 total episodes, 226 were in color and 409 were in black and white. So in the end, just over a third of the Gunsmoke series was filmed and aired in color.

Why James Arness pushed back against a 90-minute format for Gunsmoke

Switching Gunsmoke to color, and changing the episodes to be an hour and a half long in the same year may have been too much change for longtime Gunsmoke fans to handle.

But this is not the only reason why Arness put his foot down when it came to extending the show’s runtime in 1966.

Reportedly, Arness was opposed to the idea of 90-minute Gunsmoke episodes, because “It would have meant shooting two units simultaneously and diluting the show's quality.”

Why James Arness had so much say in what happened with Gunsmoke

There have been many instances throughout the years where actors clashed with the higher-ups of a network about the future of their long-standing shows. But it is rare for an actor’s opinion to hold as much weight as Arness’s did on the Gunsmoke set.

In reality, Arness had actually been a stakeholder in Gunsmoke for a few years, but he had sold his ownership in the series before any of the 1966 changes happened, because it had “got to be a burden”.

However, given that Arness (and his long-time co-stars, Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone) had become so synonymous with the show through the years, it was unlikely that Gunsmoke could have continued without his full support at all at this point.