I came to Gunsmoke late in life. Wasn’t a big Western fan, ever. When I started learning about old-time radio I knew it was one of the big shows everyone praised, but still: Western. It also had William Conrad, and I had a hard time shaking the image of the rotund “Cannon” character. I had my reasons for being wrong, that’s all.
Now and then I’d listen to one, and had the same reaction every time: wow. Conrad was all over old radio, but this was the best thing he ever did; he could do tough, angry, rueful, and fair in one short barked line of dialogue. When he faced down a mob and met their fury with his own, it raises the hair on the back of your neck. He’s so good you forget every one-off performance he ever nailed. His sidekick was Chester, played by another radio vet, Parley Baer; Doc was played by Howard McNeer, a character actor who did the same distracted fumbling shtick in other roles, but somehow made an indelible character out of his ticks and trademarks when he created Doc. (You may know him as Floyd the Barber on Andy Griffith’s show.) The more you listen to old-time radio, the more you realize how many shows these fellows did. Imagine network TV with a stable of 20, 30 actors, and you get the picture. Howard McNeer played a lot of Johnny Dollars, for example, and every time I’d hear him I’d think of Doc. Parley Baer shows up on Dollar as well. (Johnny Dollar was the finest crime / detective series on old radio, but that’s another matter.)
I’m working through the entire series now - it’s available at archive.org, free - and decided to dip into the TV show as well, just to compare. The radio show was its peak of popularity when it went to TV, and continued in both forms. Conrad was too stout to play Matt Dillon for TV, and the others were recast as well. It must have been a difficult thing to sell to audiences, because the first show was introduced by someone the producers believed had some cred with Western-lovin’ Americans:
The show begins with something the radio show could never do: wordless visuals.
The tracking shot through the graveyard carves out the show's identity in five economical seconds.
From the start he had authority, but there was a slight tentantive tint to his narration. Maybe that's just because it lacked the throaty growl of Conrad's protrayal. But the radio show never had this:
Makes you wonder if the character was named Matte Dillon.
The show ended with a prime piece of mid-century TV graphics:
That's from the first episode. There would be many more, to understate the matter. But here's the part that piqued my ears. Listen closely. Can you tell why this scene stuck out? (It's not because Dennis Weaver plays Chester.) Bonus +1000 pop culture points if you get it.
Library music from old radio shows - used most often in "Johnny Dollar," the show that had one of the longest runs in the medium, and went off the air in 1962. The year radio drama died. There were few survivors. Matt Dillon was one.