‘Gunsmoke’: James Arness and the Cast Had to ‘Cut Down’ Violence Due to Network Demands

Today violence on television is an ordinary trademark. Shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings,” “Dexter,” “True Blood,” and “The Walking Dead” are all partially popular for their gruesomely gore-filled plots. Meanwhile, earlier television had limitations in place.

For example, “Gunsmoke” is one of the most popular Western-themed shows to ever be on television. It was on from 1955 to 1975.

The Western genre contains an expected level of violence. Shootouts, fistfights, and vengeful deaths are all a part of Western glory. For “Gunsmoke” writers and producers, violence was not the answer, or rather, couldn’t be the answer.

‘Gunsmoke’ Cut Down on Violence

In an interview with Television Academy, James Arness talked about some of the limitations placed on “Gunsmoke” producers. He played Marshal Matt Dillon during the show’s run.

Beginning in the 1950s, the FCC started to become concerned over the level of violence on television. “Gunsmoke” started seeing regulations a few years into filming.

“They came out with an anti-violence campaign so we had to tone down the amount of violence in each episode,” Arness said. “It of course made the producers madder than heck because it really put limitations on them. They would tell you how many fights you could have, bar fights, and you might be able to have one shooting in an episode.”

Arness also said that the earlier episodes did not shy away from violence. These violent moments were common, but they were tasteful. Or, as Arness put it, “not done with any satisfaction.” This meaning, violence on the show advanced the plot. The main characters did not bask in violence, but used it when necessary.

Violence on the Show

Given that the show was about a marshal that was trying to maintain law and order in a small American frontier town, violence was just impossible to avoid.

While many of the shows in the same time period are light and entertaining sitcoms like “I Love Lucy” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Gunsmoke” had instances that even today could induce a level of discomfort.

According to IMDb, the original radio series was intended to show just how violent the American West was. During its early run, there were no sponsors because William Paley was so fond of the show he didn’t want to give sponsors room to interfere.

Meanwhile, the show was often blunt in its violence. In an episode called “Potato Head,” family members murder each other because of hatred. In “The Cabin,” Matt is held hostage and threatened with death before killing one of them with a pitchfork. During “The Photographer,” someone is murdered in order to get good photos for his magazine.

Also, rape was not an uncommon addition to the plot. Festus’ girlfriend is a victim of rape, but it happens off-screen. Miss Kitty gets raped in “Mannon” and “Hostage!” which were actually two of the later episodes.

The show was never afraid to show violence and paint a gruesome image of the American West. Even the FCC couldn’t completely monitor that.

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