Bette Davis played one deliciously mean, mad criminal matriarch on an episode of Gunsmoke.
And there are some reviewers who consider the Bette Davis episode of Gunsmoke as one of the best-ever on the show. She wanted the ultimate, eye-for-an-eye revenge on Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness). And she’d get it, even if it meant hurting Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) in the process.
The fact that Gunsmoke was able to cast Davis was an amazing get for the show. At the time, Davis had 10 Academy Award nominations, with two wins, on her acting resume. She was one of the greatest actresses of her generation, one of the best of all time. For modern-day context, it would be like NCIS or a Law & Order franchise asking Meryl Streep to guest star.
Arness talked about how it was to work with the great Bette Davis on Gunsmoke during a 2002 interview with the Archive of American Television. The episode was called The Jailer.
“It was mainly between the Bette Davis character and Kitty,” the Gunsmoke star said. “See, I had captured one of her sons or was responsible for him getting hung, or something. (Davis) had four sons, and they were bad. So anyway, she was after me.
“To do that, she captured Kitty and hid her out somewhere. She ended up bringing me in and her intention was to hang me. You see that was the premise of the story. And she was dynamite, of course. No question about that.
“The interesting thing was she and Kitty got along great,” Arness said of the time on the Gunsmoke set. “Amanda would tell us beforehand how she was absolutely be petrified at the thought of working with this great lady. But she said she was, No 1, right down to earth, no monkey business at all. And that she went out of her way to work great with Amanda and all. It turned out to be a great show. “
Before Gunsmoke, Bette Davis Also Guest Starred in Perry Mason
This Gunsmoke episode ran, Oct. 1, 1966. Davis was 56 at the time. Although she dominated the big screen, Davis also loved the small one. She guest starred on TV shows like Perry Mason and the Virginian. So Gunsmoke would be in her wheelhouse. Plus, she was a fan on the show.
Arness got some of the details wrong about the episode. But forgive him, it had been more than three decades between the episode and the 2002 interview. Marshal Matt Dillon captured Davis’ husband and he died by hanging for his crimes. Davis, as Etta Stone, sent her sons out to capture Dillon for pay back. Here’s another piece of trivia for Gunsmoke fans. Bruce Dern, who killed John Wayne’s character on The Cowboys, played one of Davis’ sons.
Gunsmoke casting director Pam Polifroni pitched the idea of Bette Davis for the show. She probably knew Davis enjoyed television. However, when she suggested Davis, the response was ‘Oh, come on, get real.’”
And yes, Bette Davis, as Etta Stone was very real. But fear not, Gunsmoke fans, she wasn’t good enough to kill Marshal Matt Dillon.
The world lost Bette Davis in 1989. She was 81. Arness, who always will be everyone’s favorite law man, passed away in 2011. He was 88.