Monday, June 6, 2011

Goodbye to a Western Icon

As a child of the 1950s and an avid cowboy fan, I watched my share of TV westerns. Starting with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and running through Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Virginian, High Chaparral, and The Big Valley, I watched them all and had my favorite hero on each show, but probably my most favorite hero of all was Marshal Dillon. It was a tradition on Saturday night to watch Gunsmoke, to every week watch the tall lawman keep the peace in Dodge City. Matt Dillon just seemed to embody the spirit of the West, and for a child infatuated with the cowboy myth, he was a superhero for his time.

The other characters were pretty well drawn, too, and even a little ahead of their time. Doc and Chester, and later Festus, were quibbling sidekicks who loved to rub each other the wrong way. They added comic relief to what was often a somber story of outlaws attacking the town; hardships faced by settlers of the 1870s West, and Marshal Dillon’s quest to round up those who broke the law. He seemed a man who possessed a calm demeanor in the face of gunfire but who never failed to bring justice wherever he could to a lawless land. Then there was Miss Kitty. Today she would be known as Ms. Kitty, no doubt, but even as a Miss she led the way in independence and self-reliance for a woman of her time. Owner of the Longbranch Saloon, Miss Kitty put up with no nonsense from anyone, nor did she need to be taken care of; yet she harbored a real soft spot for the Marshal, and most of us viewers knew they were truly in love. They just couldn’t give up their individual lifestyles to live an ordinary life. I think we all were pretty sure we knew where the Marshal hung his hat when the show was over.

Gunsmoke ran from 1955-1975 and was the longest running drama on TV until Law and Order surpassed it. You can still catch reruns on many cable and satellite channels, and even today those episodes of life in the 1870s Old West stand up well. I’ve found they are great to study for characterization and tight writing and action. But I guess I watch them because I still love Marshal Dillon, and I still hope that maybe I missed the episode where he finally kissed Miss Kitty. (I’m pretty sure he never did.)

James Arness, aka Marshal Matt Dillon, passed away last week at 88, still a hero in my eyes. I’m willing to say that he was one of the reasons the hero in my first published novel had to be a cowboy. Rest in peace, Marshal, and thank goodness those reruns still live on.