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John Mantley, Oversaw TV's 'Gunsmoke' In Its Later Years, Dead at 82

John Mantley, who oversaw Doc, Festus, Matt and Kitty as executive
producer of "Gunsmoke" during the landmark TV western's final decade,
has died, Tuesday, January 14, 2003, at his home in Sherman Oaks,
California, with Alzheimer's disease, at the age of 82.

A former stage and radio actor who began his television career directing
live dramas in New York City, New York, in the early 1950s, Mantley
later wrote for many live and filmed dramatic shows, including
" Checkmate," "Desilu-Westinghouse Playhouse," "Kraft Television
Theater," "The Outer Limits" and "Rawhide," as well as 23 episodes of
the "The Untouchables."

"Gunsmoke," which began on radio in 1952, debuted on CBS-TV in 1955. With James Arness starring as Marshal Matt Dillon, the series helped usher in an era of TV western fare aimed at adult audiences.

Mantley began as a script consultant on the show in 1964. He became
associate producer the following season, producer the next and, in 1967, took the reins as executive producer.

Arness recalled this week: "The ratings were sliding a bit, and they
wanted to get some new blood on the show. They luckily were able to get John, and he came and just completely revived the show."

Shifting the show from its focus on the central characters to more of an
anthology style with stories featuring guest stars such as Bette Davis,
Arness said, "was one of the innovations that he brought in. And it
really worked well, because this gave us the opportunity to broaden out
the story approach to things by bringing in new characters and opening
it up."

With that, Arness said, "the drop in the ratings we were suffering at
the time turned right around and went back up."

Until "Gunsmoke" was canceled in 1975 after 20 years, Arness said, "John ran that show and made it work better than it ever had before."

Mantley was involved in all aspects of the series, Arness said.

"He was a guy who was just completely dedicated to doing the best
possible job that could be done on the show," the actor said. "Plus, he
had a monumental amount of energy and drive.

"He'd be up until 11 or 12 o'clock at night sometimes in the editing
room going over and over a scene he wanted to make a little better. He
lived for the show, and he had the desire for excellence."

Looking back over his years on "Gunsmoke," Mantley told The Times in
1975 that he thought the show's finest hours were during its period as a dramatic anthology with guest stars of the caliber of Jack Albertson,
Richard Kiley, Vera Miles and Suzanne Pleshette.

"What we were doing was 'Studio One,' " said Mantley, referring to the
respected dramatic anthology series that ran from 1948 to 1958 on

The producer regretted the loss of the classic western form.

"It's the American morality play," he said, "as stylized as a ballet,
the eternal struggle between good and evil reenacted with good always

After "Gunsmoke" was canceled, Mantley was executive producer of "How the West Was Won," an ABC series also starring Arness -- as a mountain man -- that began as the 1976 miniseries "The Macahans." They later teamed up on "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge," a 1987 CBS movie, which led to four other TV movie revivals.

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1920, Mantley grew up in a show business

His parents were stage actors, and silent screen legend Mary Pickford was a second cousin. Mantley, who dreamed of becoming an actor as a boy, delivered the eulogy for "America's sweetheart" in 1981.

Mantley earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto in 1942 and served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force
during World War II. He earned a master's degree in theater arts from the Pasadena Playhouse in 1947.

In 1951, after finding acting to be less exciting than he thought it
would be, he became a director of live television in New York City.

At one point, he was directing three half-hour shows a week, including
" Teatro Televisione," a show for the Italian community, which may have
been the first foreign-language dramatic show on U.S. TV.

Moving to Rome in 1952, Mantley directed a filmed anthology series that
aired in America as "The Conrad Nagle Theatre." He also directed Italian
feature films.

Unable to land directing jobs when he returned to the United States in
1956, he turned to writing for television. He also wrote two novels in
the 1950s -- "The 27th Day" and "The Snow Birch," both of which were
Book-of-the-Month Club selections and were turned into movies.

Mantley, whose TV credits include a stint as producer of the '60s
western "The Wild Wild West" and co-producer of the 1968 western movie " Firecreek," starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda, was inducted into the Producers Hall of Fame in 1992.