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Top Gunsmoke Television Episodes: The Harris List


I love your list of top ten and bottom ten episodes of Gunsmoke.  The CBS 
affiliate in my hometown carried it for 20 years on the network and 16 more 
years in reruns.  The reruns are of the color episodes, so I missed all of 
the Norman McDonnell-John Meston collaborations and view the John Mantley 
shows.  I probably have about 50 of them on tape, perhaps more.
Here's a list, in chronological order, of the episodes I really like and 
don't like.  There are a good many more than ten!  Most of the shows I list 
are not on your list, in order to avoid duplication.  And once in a while, I 
go against your choices outright.  In one case ("Arizona Midnight"), I had a 
good time watching the show because it was so darn silly, even though the 
producers hated it themselves. 

I also have not seen some acclaimed episodes such as "This Golden Land" 
(March 5, 1973; a very early role for Richard Dreyfuss).  Some other shows 
just don't appeal to me because they overwork a theme ("Hostage!" being a 
prime example).  And, especially in the 19th season, co-producer Leonard 
Katzman showed the cockiness which would lead to Bobby Ewing in the shower on 
Dallas and really turn off many viewers.

Particularly Good Gunsmoke Episodes:

"The Jailer" (October 1, 1966).  Little remains to be said about this 
episode, except for "Look at that guest cast!"  Okay, Zalman King is the guy 
who produced The Red Shoe Diaries and Bo Derek's series Wind on Water, but 
other than that ... Bruce Dern, Tom Skerritt and Julie Sommars all in the 
same episode. This was Bette Davis's first major television appearance, and 
even though she was notorious for her temperament on the set, she seems to 
have kept it under control and gotten her first glimpse of television as a 
workable medium for her talents.

"Mistaken Identity" (March 18, 1967).  A killer happens upon a snakebite 
victim, gives him a swift kick in the face to finish him off, and then swaps 
identity papers with him -- only to have the second man brought into Dodge 
alive but seemingly amnesiac.  What makes this episode work is the late 
Albert Salmi really getting into it as the killer, who has the cunning of a 
trapped rat.  At one point he meets two bounty hunters who, not recognizing 
him, offer him $25 to root out the second man.  He says, and you believe him, 
that "I spent three months repairing fence lines in the dead of winter for 
less than that."  Also watch over a marvelous scene between the bounty 
hunters (Ken Mayer and the underrated Sam Melville) in their hotel room where 
they seem almost reasonable.  (Note: for some reason Ken Curtis is not seen 
in this episode, so Glenn Strange as Sam gets a substantially larger part.)

"Nitro!" (April 8 and 15, 1967).  This was the last episode of the twelfth 
season, and it's the one where Matt's mad horseback dash finds a place in the 
series' later openings.  The entire two hours are taut as you can get them, 
but the aforementioned horseback race (Matt's trying to stop David Canary 
from mixing a batch of nitroglycerin) is the key: the crew was on location 
preparing to turn on the camera when word came down that the show was 
canceled.  James Arness was staring straight into the abyss of his career 
when he got on that horse, and he "rode like the wind" (to quote an excellent 
book on the show).  It creates a chill running the length of your spine, even 
though CBS head William Paley got back from vacation after the episode was in 
the can, and promptly reinstated Gunsmoke as a Monday show, leading to TV's 
biggest-ever comeback in the ratings.  Incidentally, this role probably 
landed Canary his job on Bonanza!

"Major Glory" (October 30, 1967).  This is worth seeing just to watch Carroll 
O'Connor (in the title role) before he was Archie Bunker and Chief/Sheriff 
Gillespie.  Suffice it to say that he still had some subtlety in him back 
then.  He can also stare down a killer like nobody's business; when the 
killer fires at him he barely grazes O'Connor's ribs because he's too scared 
to aim. 
"Deadman's Law" (January 8, 1968).  What would really happen if a "vigilance 
committee" ran the town?  You guessed it.  The interest here is finding 
Gunnar Hellstrom, the series' most frequent director in the latter years, in f
ront of the camera (the episode was directed by John Rich).  He's not much of 
an actor but is well-placed in the role of sidekick to smoothly evil John 
Dehner, and the gunfight in a canyon is a wow.

"Mannon" (January 20, 1969).  This was the basis for the first Gunsmoke 
followup movie, which is extremely unfortunate because that film purely and 
simply butchered the premise.  The world's fastest gun can outdraw anyone -- 
he even says he can beat a shotgun-wielding bartender who has the weapon 
aimed and his finger on the trigger -- and consequently lives like a king 
wherever he goes as people bribe him to avoid a showdown.  Steve Forrest's 
cool and polished performance would enliven this and several other episodes, 
and he makes this one work.  BTW, he does outdraw Matt and drop him in his 
tracks -- but doesn't count on Matt having enough life in him to call out and 
beat him on the second try.

"The Prisoner" (March 17, 1969).  There were too many episodes where a nice 
guy in Matt's custody is wanted for a murder he didn't mean to commit (there 
had been one just like this a month earlier, postponed from the previous 
season).  But this one ranks because it was Jon Voight's last TV role before M
idnight Cowboy, and for some neat touches by director Leo Penn (Sean's 
father).  In particular catch Kenneth Tobey in a unique reversal of roles (he 
was the scientist who ultimately stopped The Thing -- played by James Arness 
-- in the famed 1951 movie), and Joshua Shelley as a drunkard who collects 
the bounty on Voight, only to see his friends disappear and his conscience 
reappear in one shattering moment.

"Doctor Herman Schultz, M.D." (January 26, 1970)  The elderly comedian Benny 
Rubin pitched this story idea to CBS as a star vehicle for himself; CBS 
accepted it, had a staff writer work on the characterizations (including nice 
bits for the occasional players) and turned it over to Bernard McEveety, the 
later Gunsmoke's most prolific director and a very underrated talent. 
(Vincent is his brother.)  This is fun, plain and simple, as the title 
character uses hypnosis (or "mesmerization") to swindle people out of money. 
But he's never seen anything like his old friend Doc Adams, who's too smart 
to be duped by this bit of nonsense, or Festus -- who's too dumb!  And catch 
that final chase scene between the two old physicians -- though obviously 
shot on-set in front of a rear-projection screen, it's both funny and 

"The Badge" (February 2, 1970) Finally Kitty walks out on Matt (who's been 
wounded in a gun battle) and buys into a saloon in another town, with Beverly 
Garland as her partner.  The catch?  The town boss, played by Henry Jones in 
a wonderfully prissy and precise performance.  He has the whole town under 
his thumb and goes so far as to frame Matt for assaulting a woman after he 
arrives in the town.  Jones pretty much makes this one, but there's also a 
nice bit with the downtrodden town sheriff (John Milford).  WARNING, WARNING, 
WARNING!  Footage from this episode was lifted and used as an explanation for 
Kitty's departure from the show in "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" -- even though 
Amanda Blake didn't leave for more than four years and they could have used 
"The Disciple" (below), her real last episode, just as easily.  And a swift 
kick in the synthesizer for the sound editor who redubbed the distinctive 
"POW" gunshots in the gun battle.

"Albert" (February 9, 1970) Three in a row is quite a run.  In this case, an 
inconspicuous bank clerk (Milton Selzer, who doesn't get top billing despite 
the title role) foils a robbery in progress -- after the thieves have opened 
the safe -- and pockets $5,000.  The thieves take particular exception to 
that, and hold the clerk and his wife hostage while they try again.  Nice to 
see Roy Roberts appear as Mr. Bancroft, the banker, and to see the 
mild-mannered William Schallert as a particularly cold villain.

"Chato" (September 14, 1970) This episode was the one most frequently rerun 
over the next four years, and it's easy to see why.  It was the best work 
ever done by director Vincent McEveety, who was one of a brother pair 
directing nearly a third of the color shows and is still going (he was a 
regular director on Murder, She Wrote).  Chato is almost a match for Khan of S
tar Trek and the role was probably written with that character in mind 
(Ricardo Montalban played both roles, of course); a supremely evil but 
supremely intelligent and crafty leader who knows when to take the path of 
righteousness.  The action scenes are the best in the whole series.

"Murdoch" (February 8, 1971)  Director Robert Totten, who is best remembered 
as the man who originated the "Alan Smithee" pseudonym for directors who 
don't want a screen credit (a movie he had started was taken away from him 
and finished by Don Siegel; each director admired the other's work and was 
unwilling to take credit for the final film) and as a minor-league actor, was 
in fact a quite good worker on this series.  It never hurts, of course, to 
have Jack Elam in the title role.  In this one, Elam is pursuing a 
particularly notorious gang (led by the great Jim Davis, albeit in a cameo 
role) whose members sign their names "John Doe" if they aren't known to the 
law already. What Elam doesn't know is that his own son is one of those John 
Does, a teenager who will be hanged under a blanket execution order if he 
doesn't 'fess up.  The son (Bob Random) shows no inclination to do so, so 
Elam goes off with Random in tow to find the leader of the gang, while Matt 
plies another gang member (Anthony Caruso) to identify the real bad apples of 
the gang -- "Have you ever done one decent thing in your whole life?"  The 
final gunfight is great, though you may notice Davis fires eight bullets from 
a six-gun.

"New Doctor in Town" (October 11, 1971) You could never replace Doc Adams. 
But you could substitute for him briefly when Milburn Stone was recovering 
from heart surgery, and who better to have for the role than Pat Hingle. 
Hingle's character, Dr. John Chapman, was smart enough to do things his own 
way and to use the power of persuasion when people -- like Newly, deluded 
from a brain injury and holding a family hostage with a rifle -- really 
needed it.  Hingle also did a neat turn in "Lijah" (November 15) when he 
realized that an eccentric mountain man accused of murder was really deaf and 
had been treated by him many years earlier -- "I was probably the last man to 
do anything kindly for him."

"Drago" (November 22, 1971) This was the first role Buddy Ebsen took after 
the close of The Beverly Hillbillies.  Imagine Jed Clampett with a really bad 
temper and you'll have Drago, an old Indian scout who returns to his adoptive 
family to find the mother murdered and the son critically injured.  The 
efforts by Newly to keep Drago from running completely rampant make the show 
work, but don't forget Ben Johnson, who would win an Oscar a few months later 
for The Last Picture Show, as the leader of the outlaw gang.  This, 
incidentally, was by far the highest-rated episode of the season and gave Guns
moke its best-ever seasonal rating as a Monday series.

"Alias Festus Haggen" (March 6, 1972).  Your jaw will drop when you see Ken 
Curtis walk into a room minus "them mangy chin whiskers" and the accent he 
adopted for the show.  Seems that a vicious killer named Frank Eaton is 
almost a perfect likeness for Festus Haggen, and  a dogged sheriff has Festus 
in custody ready to hang (or worse) for Eaton's crimes.  Ramon Bieri and 
Lieux Dressler (each of whom had played smaller roles earlier in the season) 
are neat to watch as the sheriff and as Eaton's two-timing wife, but Curtis 
is the main attraction. 
"The Brothers" (November 27, 1972).  For some reason this aired back-to-back 
with "Hostage" (with a preemption in between), even though they are almost 
completely identical in theme -- a killer seeks revenge on Kitty for the 
death of his brother.  I prefer this one, although the fight scene in 
"Hostage!" is the classic of all fight scenes.  Steve Forrest again is the 
soul of cool and calmness as a vicious killer who uses a knife and a small 
revolver in alternation.  He comes closer to winning the gunfight with Matt 
than almost anybody would.

"A Quiet Day in Dodge" (January 29, 1973)  Now here's a change in pace -- a 
comedy about a day in Dodge that is anything but quiet.  Matt has to deal 
with one crisis after another, particularly a youngster for whom the word 
"problem child" was invented (played by Willie Aames, who was told to just 
have fun and does).  The show loses some of its impact today because Matt 
disciplines the little fellow with a really good spanking (and later tells 
the boy's parents what he did, prompting them to spank all ten of their other 
children on the spot), but all in all it's lots of fun.  Incidentally, this 
was the last episode written by Jack Miller, who committed suicide later on 
-- a tragic loss of the later series' best writer.

"The Disciple" (April 1, 1974) This isn't that good a show, but it is so much 
better than the 19th-season episodes which preceded it that it deserves a 
mention.  This was the season finale and Amanda Blake's last episode, and -- 
wouldn't you know it -- Matt takes a shotgun blast which disables his right 
arm.  His gun arm.  He immediately walks out on Dodge and turns drifter, only 
to save the life of an Army deserter who loves to show off his gun skills but 
wouldn't kill a man to save his life.  (References to the My Lai massacre in 
Vietnam, six years earlier, are unmistakable.)  Too bad the gang which pulled 
off the bank robbery that led to Matt's shooting are still on his tail.  Nice 
work by Dennis Redfield (as the young gunslinger) Frank Marth (as the outlaw 
leader) and David Huddleston in a cameo as a bounty hunter.

"Matt Dillon Must Die!" (September 9, 1974) The series took a surprising 
rebound in quality -- albeit with some ups and dcwns -- during this final 
season.  You've seen this "The Most Dangerous Game" variant in every Western 
and many cop shows, but not with Victor French behind the camera for his lone 
crime story.  (It was not the first episode he filmed, but CBS was impressed 
enough to have it lead off the season.)  Morgan Woodward, as the demented 
leader of an outlaw clan, brings this one way up, as does Joseph Hindy as the 
one clan member who's never taken part in a killing.  Note:  Not once does any
body say Matt Dillon's name in the entire hour.

"The Fourth Victim" (November 4, 1974) When Gunsmoke decided to do a mystery, 
they wisely let director Bernard McEveety do it as he saw fit -- turning it 
into a suspense tale more than anything else.  The fact that the guest cast 
has no names in it and make only brief, scattered appearances helps a lot, 
because with no prominent roles there are no cheap clues to the killer's 
identity.  The endless tracking movements of the camera following the 
murderer (seen only from the chest down or in deep shadow) really work well, 
as does the surprise at the end -- although the killer must have been deaf 
not to pick out which Matt Dillon out of three is the real one.  (James 
Arness's two stunt doubles play the other men posing as Matt; neither one soun
ds like Arness.)  By the way, victim Victor Killian, whose role seems to be 
the same Mr. Jones played by Dabbs Greer in the half-hour series, would later 
be featured as "The Fernwood Flasher" in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman -- and 
would himself be murdered in a still-unsolved case in 1979.

"The Tarnished Badge" (November 11, 1974) For the last time ever, Victor 
French would play a villain.  (As noted earlier, he was a regular director 
for this season and also playing Mr. Edwards on Little House on the Prairie.) 
 Never was there a more vivid illustration of absolute power corrupting 
absolutely; the only soft spot French has is for his deputy, and that changes 
fast when French is forced out as sheriff and kills the deputy (Nick Nolte!) 
in a staredown.  The inevitable final confrontation is handled like a world 
championship chess match.  This was the only 20th-season episode to go 
entirely outside the staff for writing and directing.

"The Fires of Ignorance" (January 27, 1975) Yet another atypical episode, and 
one of the most honored shows in the history of the series.  This one is 
entirely focused on the right of a child to get a full public education; 
Lance Kerwin plays an uncommonly bright youth whose studies get him in 
trouble on his father's farm, Allen Garfield (remember him in the later film 
"Teachers?" as the schoolmaster determined to mentor him, and John Vernon 
(delicious irony -- Dean Wormer in "Animal House") as the student's father 
who wants his boy working the fields instead.  Educational organizations gave 
this one all sorts of honors.  Not surprisingly, it was directed by Victor 
French; somewhat more surprisingly, it was written by Jim Byrnes, who 
certainly isn't the one you would think would be writing a school drama.  The 
last major roles for Milburn Stone (Doc) and Herb Vigran (Judge Brooker).

"Hard Labor" (February 24, 1975)  I am told this was the last episode filmed 
(it is shown three episodes before the end in the syndication package), and 
it's definitely the last one to feature Matt Dillon.  (In today's world it 
would probably be held back and run as a May-sweeps series finale.)  That by 
itself would qualify it for a top slot, but wonderful casting and Earl 
Wallace's only decent script push it on up even higher.  You saw the premise 
before in "The Jailer" (Hal Sitowitz co-wrote both episodes) and heaven knows 
where else.  But you never saw Hal Williams as a cunning hired hand to a 
judge's silver mine, Gregory Sierra as a grinning guard, or especially 
William Smith as a half-broken, three-quarters-mad convict.  Other casting 
notes:  John Colicos, though best known as the villain in Battlestar Galactica
 and as Star Trek's first-ever Klingon (he played the same role several more 
times thirty years later in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), is adequate here as 
the judge who's still trying to prove he's king of the hill.  And that is 
Gerald McRaney, with a reasonable head of blond hair and clean-shaven to 
boot, starting things off as a fugitive killed by Matt.  (John G. Stephens, 
who produced the last dozen episodes, must have thanked his lucky stars for 
many years thereafter: he produced McRaney's Simon and Simon and Major Dad 
series for twelve years.)  Incidentally, Matt's last-ever gunfight is with 
McRaney, but at show's end he gets the drop on Sierra and shoots him as 
Sierra fires at Williams.  Williams comes back and kills Colicos -- the last 
person to be shot dead on the series.

"The Busters" (March 10, 1975) This was repeated as the last series episode 
on Labor Day 1975.  It's a character study, and any show which can make John 
Beck look like a good actor deserves at least a mention.  In fact, he's great 
here!  Beck's partner, the young Gary Busey, gets kicked in the head by a 
horse early in the show.  Though Busey doesn't know it, Doc Adams has told 
Beck that Busey is dying of a subdural hematoma, uncontrollable bleeding into 
the brain.  (You don't have to be John Beck to look confused by that one.) 
There are no immediate symptoms, so Beck decides to give Busey the time of 
his life.  Finally Busey spots the horse which kicked him, determines to ride 
it until it's broken, and does -- only to stagger and drop dead in his tracks 
after dismounting.  Tilt up and away.  Pass the popcorn. 


Date: Sat, 17 Jun 2000 04:38:43 EDT

Subject: Best Ten and Worst Ten Gunsmoke Episodes?

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