Although there have been other books about the legendary Western series, nothing published before has ever come close to Ben Costello’s amazing accomplishment. Costello’s 576-page chronicle is a lively and thoroughly researched work that does honor to its subject.
Starting with an overview of the show’s origins from radio series to television, Costello pays special homage to producer Norman Macdonnell. Macdonnell and John Meston were the men behind the radio show starring William Conrad, and when CBS wanted to develop the show for television, they decided to bring in movie and TV veteran Charles Marquis Warren (after Don Siegel turned the series down). The contentious Warren is credited with assembling many of the cast and then creating more problems than solutions when the series went before the cameras. Warren left the series for Rawhide and Macdonnell stepped in at last and pushed the series to its early artistic heights. All of this is excellently covered by Costello, and his conclusions are backed up by extensive interviews with the cast, producers and directors.
Armed with the production background of the first seasons, Costello turns his attention to the cast with nice, compact profiles of each series regular including stalwarts James Arness, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, Ken Curtis and Glenn Strange. The profiles are complemented by chapter-length interviews with co-stars Dennis Weaver, Burt Reynolds and Buck Taylor that prove fascinating.
As the longest running drama on television, Gunsmoke had a large turnover of producers, writers and directors. Costello documents these changes in separate chapters that are bolstered with quotes from production personnel and CBS network correspondence. In the chapter entitled “The Producers”, Costello details the problems when director Phillip Leacock took over the one-hour show only to be happily replaced by John Mantley, who steered the series to its greatest ratings by emphasizing high-profile guest stars like Bette Davis.
“The Directors” and “The Writers” chapters focus not only on the talents behind the camera, but also the weekly struggle to meet deadlines and get the show on the air. Costello’s interviews with directors like Andrew McLaglen (95 episodes), Mark Rydell, Harry Harris and others provide insight to the grinding process. “The Writers” sheds light on the early work of Katherine Hite, on of the few women writing Westerns, and a young TV scribe named Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah worked on the half-hour shows, adapting the radio scripts of John Meston…………………………………………………………
Ben Costello’s Gunsmoke: An American Institution is a well-thought and finely researched record of a cultural landmark. The book is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of broadcast television, and for Western fans it is essential.