You would think that the longest-running Western in television would go out in a blaze of glory. Nope. After 20 seasons on air, Gunsmoke simply disappeared from the schedule. Alas, there was no fanfare, no fond farewell, no spelling “Goodbye” with rocks as Marshal Matt Dillon rode off into the sunset.
Instead, the final episode of Gunsmoke to air was “The Sharecroppers,” the 635th tale of that classic Dodge City show. It was a lighthearted episode, mostly centered around Festus (Ken Curtis). Still, there are some interesting behind-the-scenes facts surround its creation.
As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of this humble adios, let’s dive deep into “The Sharecroppers.”
1. It was the final screen appearance of Milburn Stone.
The end of Gunsmoke was not the end of Matt Dillion. James Arness and Amanda Blake would reunite as the Marshal and Miss Kitty for the TV movie Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987. Four made-for-TV sequels followed, concluding with Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice in 1994. However, “The Sharecroppers” was the end of the ride for some Gunsmoke characters. Milburn Stone, the only actor besides Arness to appear in all 20 seasons, made his final turn as Doc on March 31, 1975. It would be his last screen role. Stone passed away in 1980 at the age of 75.
2. There was a pro wrestler in the episode.
Ted Christy had been grappling in the ring since the 1930s, having won the World Light Heavyweight Title in 1936. He formed a tag-team duo with his brother Vic Christy — and used his charisma to land acting roles. One of his earliest notable appearances was on The Twilight Zone, seen here, in the episode “What’s in the Box?” In the 1960s and ’70s, he frequently turned up as an uncredited “Townsman” in TV Westerns. He made around 20 appearances on Gunsmoke. See if you can spot him in “The Sharecroppers.”
3. CBS tried to cancel the show years earlier.
Thank the fans for the later seasons. In April 1975, the Associated Press sensationally wrote, “CBS has done something Indians, bad guys, bad whisky and not even CBS could do earlier: Kill off U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. The move will put James Arness… on the unemployment rolls. A few years ago CBS tried to remove the show but was met by such audience protest that the network had to renew the series.” Of course, Arness was hardly “unemployed” for long.
4. The cast and crew found out at the last minute
As chronicled in David R. Greenland’s book The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, the cancelation took everyone by surprise. “All of us were ready… for one more season of Gunsmoke,” Arness recalled. “CBS had led us downstream and then, when we were down to the wire, they dropped the ax.” Series producer John Mantley found out his show had been canceled via the front page of The Hollywood Reporter, Arness explained in an interview with the Archive of American Television. Critics deemed the show and its audience as “too old, too rural.”
5. Amanda Blake was not happy about it.
Remember, Amanda Blake had left the show following its 19th season. She was not involved with the final season and “The Sharecroppers” in any way. Nevertheless, she took offense to how the network suits treated the show. “Amanda Blake was in New York shortly after the series was canceled,” Greenland wrote in his The Gunsmoke Chronicles, “Riding past CBS headquarters, she remarked, ‘I think I’ll go in there and hit [CBS president] Bill Paley over the head with a brickbat.'”
6. “Hard Labor” was the last episode filmed.
Like most shows, Gunsmoke did not air its episodes in production order. Thus, “Hard Labor,” episode 20 of season 20, was the final story shot for the series.
7. It was Bruce Boxleitner’s fourth television episode ever.
Bruce Boxleitner became a major star of the Eighties thanks to Tron and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. In the mid-’70s, he was just getting started. Following appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hawaii Five-O, he made his fourth guest spot on an episodic television series with Gunsmoke. He must have clicked with James Arness — the two would soon co-star together in How the West Was Won.
8. Production on How the West Was Won began “days later.”
James Arness and John Mantley did not wait long to switch saddles. MGM approached the star and writer-producer to helm a television reboot of the 1962 film How the West Was Won. Originally intended to be a miniseries, How the West Was Won the series ended up running for three successful seasons. “We were off and running on that show within days, actually, of cancelation of Gunsmoke,” Arness explained to the Archive of American Television.