In 1975, the unthinkable happened: Gunsmoke was canceled after twenty seasons and more than 600 episodes. It was a shock to viewers, but far more so to cast and crew. “The network never told anyone they were thinking of canceling,” star James Arness said. ”We all expected to go on for another season, or two, or three.”
By the mid-1970s, Westerns had largely ridden off into the sunset on network television. When Matt Dillon hung up his gun belt in March of 1975, it marked the end of an era for a format that once seemed bulletproof. Fittingly, it would be James Arness — Gunsmoke’s Marshal Dillon himself — who helped kick off the next stage of the genre’s evolution on TV.