Gunsmoke’ Ending Explained: Does The Classic Tv Western Go Out With A Bang?


Few shows have run on network television for as long as Gunsmoke ran on CBS. For twenty years, the Western series braved television sets after first jumping from a radio drama to the screen, and later from black-and-white to technicolor. Starring James Arness as the recognizable Marshal Matt Dillon, it seemed like Gunsmoke would go on forever, or at least for as long as the cast and crew were willing to stick around. But all good things eventually come to an end, and in 1975, Gunsmoke was unceremoniously cancelled by CBS, ending the series with a strange episode that felt more like an aside than a proper finale. Here’s what happened.

How Does the Classic TV Western ‘Gunsmoke’ End?

Believe it or not, Gunsmoke ended after 20 full seasons with not with a bang but with a whimper. Rather, the series fell into obscurity without hardly any fuss at all. The final episode aired, a strange standalone called “The Sharecroppers,” that felt more like your standard filler episode rather than a triumphant finale to over two decades’ worth of television. When you consider that Gunsmoke was a radio drama even before that, it’s clear that this long-running series had a lot of life in it during its run, having outlasted most other Western television shows at the time, including The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which premiered only four days prior. But unlike Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke ran longer than any Western could dream, far outlasting even Bonanza, which ended in 1973.

But Gunsmoke’s impromptu finale, which premiered on March 31, 1975, was a pretty underwhelming way to end the series considering its impressive longevity. “The Sharecroppers” follows a young woman named Av Marie Pugh (Susanne Benton) who fights hard to get her lazy family to plant their crops and make them a living, including their father Dibble, who is played by none other than Little House on the Prairie star Victor French. But after Deputy Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis) accidentally shoots Av Marie’s brother, he feels compelled to help the Pughs before they are run off their land by their landlord Linder Hogue (Jacques Aubuchon) and his son, Toby (future Tron star Bruce Boxleitner). There’s some relational drama in there too between Av Marie and Toby, and a weird moment where Av Marie hits on Festus to make her beau jealous, but thankfully, it doesn’t go much further than that.

Things all turn out for the best in the end. Festus helps save the Pugh family’s welfare, Av Marie and Toby get married and plan to leave for California, and Dibble even gets up from under his tree, but the rest of the Gunsmoke leads have nothing to do at all. Marshal Dillon (Arness), Doc (Milburn Stone), and Newly O’Brian (Buck Taylor) strangely only appear in a single scene, and for a show that was once titled Marshal Dillon, it feels a bit anticlimactic to choose a Festus-focused episode to end Season 20. But it didn’t seem like even the show itself knew it was ending. “Stay tuned to exciting scenes from our next Gunsmoke,” the announcer calls during the episode’s credits. Only this time, there would be no next episode.

‘Gunsmoke’ Was Cancelled Abruptly Before Season 21

But the real reason Gunsmoke ended the way it did wasn’t because the writers didn’t want to give the Western series a proper ending, but rather because CBS had been trying to give Marshal Dillon and his friends the axe for years. But to make things even worse, according to David R. Greenland in his book The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, the network canceled the series just as production was about to start on an upcoming (and yet unrealized) Season 21. No doubt, “The Sharecroppers” was a lousy note to end on, but Season 20 still had some notable episodes, proving that Marshal Dillon still had some life left in him. Sadly, CBS didn’t quite see it that way, and they didn’t even have the decency to let the cast and crew know.


“CBS has done something Indians, bad guys, bad whisky and not even CBS could do earlier: Kill off U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon,” the Associated Press wrote back in April 1975 (as noted by Greenland in The Gunsmoke Chronicles), just weeks after the lackluster finale aired. “A few years ago CBS tried to remove the show but was met by such audience protests that the network had to renew the series.” Previously, Gilligan’s Island was cancelled to keep Gunsmoke on the air because then-CBS President William S. Paley and his wife were big fans of the Western drama. But this time around, there would be no eleventh-hour save, and the cancellation stuck. Gunsmoke evaporated from the air without a sound.

“All of us were ready, psychologically, for one more season of Gunsmoke,” series star James Arness revealed only a few years later. “CBS has led us downstream and then, when we were down to the wire, they dropped the ax.” Interestingly, “The Sharecroppers” wasn’t the last episode that Gunsmoke produced. According to actor William Smith, the episode “Hard Labor” was the last episode filmed, which might have been a more fitting and well-rounded end to Marshal Dillon’s television exploits. But alas, “The Sharecroppers” was chosen to round out Season 20 (which is honestly a pretty strange move in itself, regardless of it also being the defacto series finale), leaving Gunsmoke fans everywhere underwhelmed and confused.

‘Gunsmoke’ Continued as TV Movies

Thankfully, Gunsmoke’s cancellation didn’t mean we saw the very last of Marshal Dillon and his friends, though most of them wouldn’t return for more. “We finished the 20th year, we all expected to go on for another season, or two, or three,” James Arness admitted years later, so by the time Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge aired over a decade later, nobody was surprised to see Marshal Dillon back in the saddle. Former cast members Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor even returned as Kitty Russell and Newly O’Brien for Return to Dodge, though Ken Curtis (Festus Haggen) reportedly declined. Sadly, Milburn Stone (Doc) died in 1980. Return to Dodge proved successful enough that Gunsmoke was revived for four more made-for-TV movies. The Last Apache aired in 1990, To the Last Man in 1992, The Long Ride in 1993, and the final on-screen adventure, One Man’s Justice in 1994.

Though the rest of the long-running Gunsmoke cast didn’t return for the subsequent TV movies (and former cast members such as Dennis Weaver (Chester Goode) and Burt Reynolds didn’t either), James Arness continued with Marshal Dillon until the end. One Man’s Justice served not only as the end of the Gunsmoke saga but as the very last acting credit in Arness’ nearly 50-year-long career. The actor (who was in his 70s at the time) retired after playing Dillon in an impressive 635 episodes of television and five subsequent features. Arness died in 2011 at 88 years old, having lived a full life as a Western star.

Famed Western author Louis L’Amour once called Gunsmoke the “best video westerns to date” due to its commitment to authenticity compared to some of its television counterparts, and while the show might not have gone out with a bang, Marshal Dillon did get his due in the end (via The Gunsmoke Chronicles). Even if it took an extra decade to get there, Gunsmoke wouldn’t let anyone, not even CBS, bury it without a fight. As far as long-running Westerns go, there’s a reason that Gunsmoke remains at the top. To this day, there isn’t another Western series that’s outlasted Marshal Dillon, and that’s unlikely to ever change.