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The Sound of Gunsmoke (1952-61)

CBS president William S Paley was apparently a fan both of detective fiction and the frontier tales of Louis L’Amour, so it’s not surprising he would be interested in a radio show which combined both genres. What does strike me as a little mystifying is that after producing two unaired pilots in 1949, with Rye Billsbury and Howard Culver both trying out for the role of gritty US marshal Matt Dillon, it took CBS another three years to finally hand the badge to William Conrad.

I’m currently listening to those early episodes, which exhibit a dark tone rarely heard in radio drama of that period (producer-director Norman Macdonnell and head writer John Meston were determined this should be an adult take on “the story of the violence that moved west with young America, and the story of a man who moved with it”). The core cast is excellent, particularly Conrad, who infuses Dillon with a gravitas and sense of inevitability which can at times be quite chilling. Such a pity CBS felt he didn’t fit the image of the heroic lawman when Gunsmoke was launched as a television series in 1955, and handed the role to James Arness.

William Conrad in a publicity shot for Gunsmoke

Conrad reportedly estimated he’d played an astonishing 7500 parts on the airwaves, and indeed it was his very omnipresence on the airwaves which made CBS reluctant to cast him as Dillon, but it is undeniably the shining glory of his career and a landmark in radio history.

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