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An 'Untouchable' in Dodge City?



That's Robert Stack with Carole Lombard in her final film, "To Be Or Not To Be." They had been friends for several years, since Stack -- a renowned skeet shooter -- had given her lessons.

Stack, who had been acting for several years before working on film with Lombard, would of course gain lasting fame for playing Eliot Ness in the early sixties series "The Untouchables." However, if some CBS executives had had their way, Stack would have played another lawman who ultimately became famous...although, unlike Ness, he never actually existed.

In the early fifties, CBS radio decided to try something new -- a western series that went far beyond the horse opera shoot-'em-up cliches. It was called "Gunsmoke," and when it came time to select a cast, some of the network suits wanted Stack to play the marshal of Dodge City, Matt Dillon. This put them at odds with the show's creator, Norman MacDonnell, who sensed Stack would be too much a traditional heroic type. Instead, MacDonnell wanted to hire a veteran radio actor who had worked with him on other series such as "Escape."

Ultimately, MacDonnell got his way, and that's how William Conrad came to play Marshal Dillon when "Gunsmoke" debuted on radio in April 1952. And thanks to fine acting from Conrad and other members of the cast, literate scripts and excellent sound work, "Gunsmoke" quickly became recognized as something far beyond the typical oater -- radio's equivalent of what was being done on screen at the time, such as "High Noon" or the James Stewart "psychological" westerns.

Maybe Stack could have pulled it off. But Conrad gave Dillon's character a texture, a weariness over the complexity of his work. As Dillon explained in the show's opening, he was "the first man they look for and the last they wanna meet...It's a chancy job, but it makes a man watchful. And a little lonely."

Writers researched Dodge City of the 1870s to make it as realistic as possible; there really was a Front Street in town, and the Long Branch saloon actually existed. (The series' authenticity was such that the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce wrote the program looking for information on whether someone named Matt Dillon had worked in the town at the time.)

By the early '50s, network radio drama was reaching an artistic peak; production values had improved tremendously, as had the writing. (For proof, listen to "Dragnet" on radio and compare it with some of the police-detective shows of a few years earlier. "Dragnet's" realism was a quantum leap forward, although the emphasis was on the procedural work, not the characters. Joe Friday was no Matt Dillon.) But just as silents faced a challenge from the comparatively primitive talkies, so was radio confronted by television.

So as "Gunsmoke" became a hit, there was talk that like "Dragnet," it too would be adapted for TV. Cast members were hoping to make the switch as well, and began a campaign to show they could pull it off. They visited Knott's Berry Farm in 1953 wearing western gear, and a few photos were made, such as this one:



That's Conrad, flanked by Howard MacNear as Doc Adams, left, and Parley Baer as Dillon's assistant (not a deputy), Chester Proudfoot. Above them is Georgia Ellis as Kitty, who ran the Long Branch (and overseer of its girls; there was always an undercurrent that she was a madam). TV fans will remember MacNear as Floyd the barber on "The Andy Griffith Show."

CBS ultimately didn't buy the argument, and when the TV version began in September 1955 -- introduced by John Wayne, a major fan of the radio series -- James Arness was cast as the marshal (he certainly looked the part more than Conrad did, although his voice was never quite as authoritative), and none of the radio actors made the switch to the TV series. (Many of the scripts used in the first few years of the TV series were adapted from those used on radio.)

The radio series continued to air, and in fact would run until June 1961, the death knell for traditional network radio. (Two other CBS series, "Suspense" and "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," continued through September 1962.) The TV series ran for two decades, and is still highly regarded -- although many still deem the radio "Gunsmoke" to be the definitive version.

To compare the radio and TV "Gunsmokes"' approach to the same scene, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3LGw4C9y7g. To hear some "Gunsmoke" radio episodes, visit http://www.oldtimeradiofans.com/template.php?show_name=Gunsmoke.
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