The Best & the Worst of Gunsmoke The Worst
Worst Gunsmoke Television Episodes: The Harris List.


And now, the worst ones I saw:

"The Gang" (October 8, 1966).  This is a halfway decent story -- unrepentant 
Confederates living in Mexico and taking in outlaws -- but it's done in by 

extreme and unnecessary violence.  Five of the six name players (and numerous 

extras) take bullets in the chest, back, groin, whatever, as do several 

extras.  The lone survivor is Arch Johnson, a minor player in the sixties and 

seventies, playing a loyal sergeant who finally goes "home."

"Vengeance" (October 2 and 9, 1967).  Buck Taylor, Morgan Woodward and Victor 
French all make their Gunsmoke debuts in this two-hour episode, and that's 

just about all you can say in favor of these two hours of steadily escalating 

brutality.  Taylor's role was actually a screen test for the role of Newly 

O'Brien (he plays a vicious hired gun here), while James Stacy and Kim Darby 

try and fail to control themselves after sadistic rancher John Ireland steps 

on Woodward with his horse.

(unknown title) (March 16, 1970) Earl Holliman could be very, very good -- 
but not on this series.  Here he plays a total brute, seeking revenge on a 

farmer (Morgan Woodward, playing a coward for once) who left him high and dry 

when the law swooped down on them while robbing a bank.  If you enjoy 

Holliman taunting Kitty and Sam while holding the Long Branch's shotgun (is 

it empty or isn't it?), you probably have too much time on your hands.  And 

don't forget Holliman's bizarre, raspy voice in the Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge 


"Cleavus" (February 15, 1971) Robert Totten sometimes acted and sometimes 
directed, and on occasion he is credited with doing both at once on this 

episode.  Totten had more pride than that.  He did not have the good sense to 

turn down this role, though; with a huge fake beard adding to his discomfort, 

he plays a chronic loser who accidentally kills a gold miner and says he 

found the mine instead.  Durn his luck; although there is a little gold in 

the mine, most of it is iron pyrite (fool's gold).  Cleavus even manages to 

blow himself apart while tossing aside a shotgun at episode's end.  You'll 

wish he'd done it about 30 minutes earlier.  The on-screen credits give 

direction to Vincent McEveety, who had in fact directed Totten as an actor in 

quite a few previous episodes and probably deserves full credit here.

"The Widow and the Rogue" (October 29, 1973) This might not be as bad as I 
think it is, but it gets the award for spectacularly bad timing,  As this 

episode unspooled, guest star James Stacy was fighting for his life in a Los 

Angeles hospital after being broadsided by a drunk driver (Stacy's passenger 

was killed, and Stacy lost an arm and a leg).

"A Game of Death ... An Act of Love" (November 5 and 12, 1973).  I've said 
before that the 19th season was the worst.  Don't know exactly why, but one ma

jor reason was how episodes dragged through long conversations with the 

equivalent of elevator music running in the background.  That's not the most 

important factor of this episode, but it's a 90-minute (tops) show padded to 

two hours; the last 20 minutes are completely unwatchable for reasons just 

outlined.  The screen credits give a hint of trouble by placing Paul Stevens 

in third place, although he dominates the show as a half-Indian lawyer 

defending some renegade tribesmen on a murder charge, while the victim's 

widower and daughter watch from different perspectives.  Incidentally, 

Stevens suffered a stroke just before filming his courtroom speech and the 

segment had to be put on hold; when Stevens returned to the set three weeks 

later, he was propped up in a cart and shot only from very close angles to 

disguise his lack of mobility (this may well have been a factor in the 

post-courtroom scenes dragging out so long).  Incidentally, Glenn Strange 

(Sam) died during that hiatus, and the Long Branch was never the same.

"A Family of Killers" (January 14, 1974) This is one episode which totally 
screws up its priorities.  Is it about a vengeance-hungry marshal (Glenn 

Corbett)?  Is it about the head of the outlaw family (Anthony Caruso)?  Is it 

about the family of killers (Mills Watson and Stuart Margolin, the latter 

totally wasted)?  And is the final gunfight dumb or is it really dumb?  (Matt 

Dillon and Corbett, each armed with only one revolver, manage to cut down 

four outlaws packing rifles, pistols and shotguns; note how quickly Watson 

runs out of bullets.)  There's some nice work by Zina Bethune, a former star 

of the prime-time soap The Doctors and the Nurses, but she was probably glad 

to get the paycheck and go home.

"The Town Tamers" (January 28, 1974) They finally give Jim Davis a lead role 
(his last on Gunsmoke, although Jock Ewing would be created just for him) and 

it's plum worthless.  Matt Dillon and Davis try to impose law and order on a 

wide-open town, and at episode's end it looks like they took on the town and l


"The Iron Blood of Courage" (February 11, 1974)  Another good idea gone 
south.  What if a hired gun was well-educated and a family man, and took his 

wife and daughter with him when he was on assignment?  Not too plausible but 

worth a look, until Patti Cohoon (her again?) as the daughter starts spouting 

bad essays and each side tries to bushwhack the gunman.  It's fitting but not 

the least bit convincing when he decides to just buy the disputed land with 

his own money and become a farmer.  Watch the final negotiation and see how 

much of it was assembled from stock footage of James Arness, who's watching 

from a hillside.  Incidentally, this is the first episode where Eric Braeden 

(who plays the gunman and deserved better) wears his famed Young and the 

Restless mustache.

"The Schoolmarm" (February 25, 1974) This wouldn't be that bad if it didn't 
set a pattern for almost totally ignoring the time frame in which Gunsmoke was

 set (the way Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman would make into a habit two decades 

later).  A schoolteacher, who has been raped by a passerby, is pregnant and 

stalked by the rapist.  The rapist takes a fatal tumble down the Long Branch 

stairs in a fight with the teacher's boyfriend. The viewer gets a very bad 

taste in his or her mouth.

"A Town in Chains" (September 16, 1974) Okay, Gunsmoke could have run two 
more years as it was if Fred Silverman hadn't decided to kill it (a dumb move 

if there ever was one; the next successful show in that time slot would be eig

ht years later).  It would not have been able to survive into the 1977-78 

season, because episodes like this would have been the result.  CBS, as 

viewers will remember, got hypersensitive about violence and cut gunplay 

almost to zero, unless someone was playing target practice (as in this 

episode) and the gunfire was cartoonish (again as in this episode).  A bunch 

of bumbling thieves pose as Army men to rob a bank, and the whole hour 

becomes the seventies version of Dumb and Dumber.  The outlaws are so inept 

that when Matt trades shots with them, he just wings Jon Cypher in the arm.  

(Even that would have been borderline for CBS during 1977-79.  Watch Hawaii 

Five-O from those two years and see how limp it became; even a lifting of the 

restrictions for '79-'80 couldn't save it.)

"The Guns of Cibola Blanca" (September 23 and 30, 1974) This two-parter taken 
together may serve as the worst episode of the entire series, unless you 

count the first and third movies as series episodes.  Number One on the list 

of problems is the fact that Kitty Russell was supposed to be a major player. 

 When Amanda Blake quit the show shortly before filming started, the 

character wasn't dropped; instead she was renamed Lyla (played by Dorothy 

Tristan) -- and not rewritten at all.  Watch the show -- if you dare -- and 

you'll see how Lyla flounders through what would have been Kitty's scenes 

(cat fight in the mud, rape, etc.).  Number Two on the list:  in a season 

where the worries about TV violence were skyrocketing, this is hands down the 

most violent episode in the entire series -- the show ends with an entire town

 and its inhabitants being blown sky high (if they haven't been shot 

already).  There is a grotesque pleasure in seeing James Luisi play a role alm

ost as psychotic as his Captain Chapman on The Rockford Files, but nothing 

else works in the slightest.  Incidentally, these constitute two out of 

exactly four episodes (out of 24 in the last season) where the four main 

characters, minus Kitty, even appear together; the other two aired in 

November 1974.  The other 20 dealt with one character or another meeting up 

with an old friend or enemy and doing the entire story in conjunction with 

that character (when they bothered to use the regulars at all, that is).

"The Wiving" (October 14, 1974)  This was the second episode filmed in the 
1974-75 season and the writing debut of Earl Wallace, who would team with 

William Kelly to script the acclaimed film Witness.  When they won an Oscar 

for the script, they spent most of their acceptance speech throwing barbs at 

Peter Weir, who had rewritten the whole thing.  They should have been 

salaaming him on hands and knees for letting them keep the credit.  You be 

the judge, starting with this episode:  a farmer (Harry Morgan in a huge and 

incredibly fake beard) decides he and his idiot sons need to get married.  So 

the boys ride into town and raid the Long Branch Saloon of all its bar girls, 

including new owner Miss Hannah (Fran Ryan), whom they intend as Dad's new 

missus.  This is played partially for laughs and partially deadly serious as 

the shanghaied ladies struggle to either escape or to avoid falling for the 

farm boys.  Definitely not for the women's rights crowd.  But, almost 

unbelievably, this episode was so popular with the viewers that a sequel, 

"Brides and Grooms," was rushed into production and shown February 10; at 

least that one is wholly comic and shows off Ryan's talents again.

"Manolo" (March 17, 1975) Well, the premise is certainly original, but then 
again it's an Earl Wallace script.  Somewhere Wallace read that in the Basque 

country of Spain, young men show their maturity by beating their fathers in a 

fistfight.  Say what?  The whole episode shows us Manolo (Robert Urich, even 

more leaden than usual) whine and moan and get into trouble over his refusal 

to perform the ritual, because as a boy in the old country he had 

accidentally killed another child in a playground brawl.  Until, of course, 

he takes on his younger brother, who had fought Dad first and won by 

head-butting him into a metal water jug.  (Mark Shera, as the younger 

brother, was costarring with Urich in S.W.A.T. at the time this episode 

aired, and at least he has the good sense not to take it too seriously.)  

Since he didn't kill his brother, Urich decides to take on Dad (Nehemiah 

Persoff, who can do just about any old-country role and comes through again 

here), wins, and all of a sudden everything is set right.  Puh-leeze!  

However, there are some good bits with Fran Ryan as Miss Hannah, the new 

proprietor of the Long Branch (she had been on before, but almost always 

outside the saloon).  I don't suppose anybody knows any real Basque 

sheepherders other than prominent Republican politician Paul Laxalt -- who 

presumably wasn't asked what a Basque accent sounds like.  This is shown as 

the last episode in the syndicated run.

"The Sharecroppers" (March 31, 1975) This was actually filmed at midseason 
and was the directing debut of producer Leonard Katzman.  Next thing you 

know, he's out the door on his nose and replaced by John G. Stephens.  Don't 

know the backstage politics involved in that one, but I suspect it was 

because this episode was so D-U-L-L (almost soporific) that CBS moved it to 

the end of the season.  The plot, if there is one, concerns a woman's efforts 

to get her lazy family to grow crops on their hired farm; when she can't talk 

them into it, she shanghais Festus instead.  Maybe.  I lost track after about 

two minutes.  (Yes, it's still another Earl Wallace script.)  Presumably 

Bruce Boxleitner loves this episode, however; he rode it to John Mantley's How

 The West Was Won and TV stardom for the next quarter century.  Also catch 

Lisa Eilbacher, who would play Eddie Murphy's gorgeous, miniskirted lady 

friend in Beverly Hills Cop.


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

Subject: Best Ten and Worst Ten Gunsmoke Episodes?

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