‘Gunsmoke’: The Series Actually Started the Same Week as Another Iconic Western

Back in 1955, “Gunsmoke” made its triumphant move from radio to TV on CBS. Yet there was another major western show that also premiered, too.

Actor Hugh O’Brian began his time starring in “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” as well. It marked the second western geared toward an adult audience to appear on TV. Most westerns before these two shows were looking to draw the children’s audience into the programming.

“Gunsmoke” and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” changed that narrative. The shows found homes on CBS and ABC, respectively. Also, they made it possible for other westerns to follow in their paths and tackle tough issues.

‘Wyatt Earp’ Ran On ABC, Premiered Four Days Before ‘Gunsmoke’

One show that did so was “Bonanza” on NBC. Both “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” hold the top two spots for the longest-running westerns on TV.

O’Brian starred as Earp, also a Marshal like James Arness’ Matt Dillon. The show ran for six seasons on ABC and premiered four days before “Gunsmoke” did. Desilu Productions oversaw “Wyatt Earp” episodes and the show was a perennial Top 10 rating finisher.

When looking for someone to portray Earp, producers were seeking an actor who resembled him. O’Brian had that look when they compared him to early photos of Earp. So, he got the role. It would become his most recognizable role on TV. O’Brian also spent time in films, including a supporting role in John Wayne’s final film, “The Shootist.”

Hugh O’Brian died on Sept. 5, 2016, at 91 years old. One of the highlights of his work outside the entertainment industry was creating the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation. He started it in 1958 as a non-profit program for high-school scholars.

James Arness Talks About Message CBS Western Sent To Viewers

As mentioned earlier, “Gunsmoke” was one of those TV westerns that steered its show toward an older, adult audience. They wanted people to watch the show and embrace the characters and storylines.

Arness, who played Dillon for all 20 seasons the show was on CBS, talked about that very thing.

“I think you could say that compared to most of the Westerns that had been, up to that point in time — no criticism of them, but they were more or less — I wouldn’t say ‘kid shows,’” Arness said in a 2006 interview. “But they were more or less kind of ‘fun-time’ westerns, whereas ‘Gunsmoke’ they dubbed the ‘adult’ Western.”

Additionally, Arness admitted that he liked the idea of a grown-up western TV show.

“Actually, I think it was the premise of it,” he said. “They told stories of real-life and real characters, and stories that we hoped the audience would become involved in. That kind of approach. And, evidently, they did.”

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