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‘Gunsmoke’: How the Assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Changed the Series Forever

‘Gunsmoke’: How the Assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Changed the Series Forever

Western TV show Gunsmoke originally had its fair share of violence, but the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King changed it.

During its time on CBS, Gunsmoke, like a lot of Western shows at the time, featured gunfights, fistfights, and bad guys in jail. Violence had its place on the small screen and was almost expected to be in these shows.

This pattern had started to change, however, especially for Gunsmoke. Network executives began toning down the violence in the show. This process became even more prevalent in 1968. Within a few months of each other, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated – Kennedy in Los Angeles, and King in Memphis, Tennessee, shifting the landscape of Gunsmoke forever.

These events heightened American’s awareness of violence. Social issues were moved to the forefront. Nightly television news shows started with the daily updates from the Vietnam War. It was enough for television shows like Gunsmoke to take note.

‘Gunsmoke’ Took Out Violence After the Kennedy, King Assassinations

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were quite popular with their respective followers. They did not need reminders of how violence plays out. Television executives took note following Kennedy and King’s assassinations and weaned Gunsmoke of its more violent scenes. But this did not last, as a Western without a good fight or shootout just isn’t a Western. At least that was the argument for some of the show’s actors, including James Arness.

Arness was introduced to television viewers as Marshal Matt Dillon back in 1955. He was still going strong in the late 1960s in Gunsmoke. After a period of time, the networks started allowing some violence back on the small screen.

Following the Kennedy and King assassinations, Gunsmoke did more than OK without its violent elements. In 1969, the show finished at No. 2 among the most-watched television shows with 14.5 million weekly viewers.

James Arness Understood Violence Cutdown

Longtime Associated Press entertainment reporter Bob Thomas interviewed Arness in 1970, MeTV reports. The violence returned to Dodge City, and Arness talked about it.

“That’s the first fight we’ve had in a long time,” Arness said, “and I suspect that the network will cut it out of the finished show.” In the years after the King and Kennedy assassinations, Gunsmoke added more violence to its shows and scripts. Slowly, viewers began to see more fistfights and gunfights around Dodge City.

“We have a little more freedom, but not much,” Arness said. “I can understand the reasons for cutting down violence, but I must say it makes it damned hard to film a Western when you can’t use fists or guns.”

Gunsmoke would go on and be a part of CBS’ lineup into the mid-1970s. Besides Arness, others in the Gunsmoke cast over the years included Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, Dennis Weaver, Burt Reynolds, Ken Curtis, and Buck Taylor. Fans can see reruns regularly on MeTV, and the show has its own channel on Pluto TV.