‘Gunsmoke' The Sixth Season Volume 1
The sixth season of “Gunsmoke” (1960-'61) was its last as a 30-minutes-per-episode series and its last truly great string of teleplays.
John Meston — co-creator along with director Norman MacDonnell of the original radio series that was adapted for television in 1955 — was still writing the majority of the scripts, reveling in upending old-fashioned Western fiction cliches in favor of gritty, quirky, colorful characters, realistic portrayals of 19th-century hardship, and frequently dark story lines with untidy and often tragic endings.
The original cast beloved by millions was still intact, with 6-foot-7-inch James Arness as the incorruptible, no-nonsense, leather-tough U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell, the saloonkeeper with a heart of gold and an unspoken love for the big lawman, Milburn Stone as the cantankerous but caring Dr. Galen “Doc” Adams, and the inimitable Dennis Weaver — former University of Oklahoma drama major and track star — as “Mr. Dillon's” Okie-drawling, limping, loyal assistant, Chester Goode.
The first volume of the sixth season contains 19 episodes (TV series averaged well over 30 episodes a year back then).
Actors who made numerous appearances in different roles over the years crop up in several segments, including John Dehner, this time as a bullying outlaw named Rack, who captures Matt and tries to use him as a passport out of the country; John Hoyt as a mean rancher who pushes his mild-mannered son too far in “No Chip,” and Kenneth Tobey as a troublemaking buffalo hunter who may or may not have killed one of Matt's best friends in “The Worm.”
Unlike other “Gunsmoke” DVD sets that include such extras a vintage commercials with cast members hawking L&M cigarettes, Sixth Season Volume 1 contains no bonus features, but the many great stories and performances more than make up for that shortcoming.
Unfortunately, when the show expanded to an hour the following season, the series began to run low on narrative bullets and Arness — by then an associate producer on the show — became increasingly absent, leaving his supporting players to serve as focal points of many episodes.
And Weaver — whose Chester was usually the most interesting and amusing of the continuing characters — finally left the program in 1963 to pursue other acting interests.
Still, “Gunsmoke” went on to become the United States' longest-running prime time, live-action TV drama with 635 episodes through 20 seasons.
But these 30-minute gems from the first six seasons remain some of the finest and most original dramatic entertainment in the history of the medium.
Dodge City in its black-and-white days is well worth a visit.
— Gene Triplett