‘60s #43: ‘Gunsmoke’

Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence. (This series ran originally in the Classic 1960’s TV Facebook group.)

#43: Gunsmoke: ‘Stranger in Town’

CBS’ Gunsmoke was the linchpin of American primetime network dramatic television programs, an audience favorite for which the 1960s coincided with the middle period of its phenomenal 20-year run.

The show was nothing less than an American institution. It may not have been the best Western program of the era, but it was the most archetypal.

Just as archetypal was the series’ lead character: Matt Dillon (James Arness), the Marshall of Dodge City, KS, in the late 19th Century. Other characters on the program included Amanda Blake as saloon owner Kitty Russell, Ken Curtis as Dillon’s Deputy Festus Haggen and Milburn Stone as “Doc” Adams.

The formula for the typical Gunsmoke episode was simple. A bad guy comes into Dodge City and stirs up trouble. Marshall Dillon, even-tempered and slow to violence, warns him to leave Dodge, but the villain ignores the warning. Eventually, Dillon has no choice but to face down the man in a gun duel. This was the basic synopsis of most of Gunsmoke’s installments.

Pernell Roberts, Bonanza
(‘Bonanza.’ Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, the show was capable of rising above its tropes and offering many exceptional and nuanced stories. The episode selected here to represent Gunsmoke is famous for having as its chief guest star a regular on another famous long-running western of the era: Bonanza’s Pernell Roberts. The episode is “Stranger in Town,” which aired November 20, 1967.

Dodge resident Harry Cagle (played by the ubiquitous Henry Jones) is a man with a heavy gambling debt who is running out of time to pay it. He concocts a scheme to murder his business partner, Anderson, so that he will have access to all his firm’s money. Cagle hires gunfighter Dave Reeves (Roberts) as a hit man, knowing that Reeves has a personal motive for the killing as Reeves’ ex-wife is currently involved with Anderson. But when Reeves learns that he has a son he has never met, he becomes conflicted. He wants his family back, and knows that will be impossible if he is branded as a killer.

It was Roberts’ performance that makes this Gunsmoke episode one of the best-remembered of all the hundreds of installments the program aired.

[Editor’s note: Gunsmoke is not streaming, but airs Mondays through Saturdays at 1 pm on MeTV, where episodes from season 13, the one that includes “Stranger in Town” are running this month. MeTV is available free over the air via an antenna connected to your TV set and on many cable systems. To find your local channel number, visit MeTV’s Where to Watch page.)

(Top photo: Pernell Roberts and Amanda Blake in Gunsmoke’s ‘Stranger in Town.’ Source: IMDb, colorized with Algorithmia)

About Todd M. Pence

Todd M Pence has been an amateur historian and scholar of American television for the past 35 years. “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960” is the product of decades of research, not just in active viewing but in extensive combing of newspaper and magazine archives to read the original reviews of programs at the time they aired. He has also reached out to fellow television researchers to get their opinions. Pence maintains that the decade of the 1960's constituted the zenith of American primetime television drama, and that we will probably never see its like again. His purpose in compiling this list was to preserve this history and to spotlight many exceptional programs which have been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. Pence holds a BA in Journalism from West Virginia University and has worked for the past 20 years in the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public School system

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