This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Norman Macdonnell's "Stock Company" on Gunsmoke
by Stewart Wright © 2016
(From Radio Recall, December, 2016)
On Gunsmoke, as on his other series, director Norman Macdonnell relied on a relatively small group of performers for the majority of his guest cast members. These highly talented actors have become known as Norman Macdonnell's "Gunsmoke Stock Company" and have been alluded to in several Old-Time Radio books and by actors from the Golden Age of Radio. But these general statements have left a couple of unanswered questions. What were the advantages in using a small cadre of regular guest performers? Which actors were part of Norman Macdonnell's Gunsmoke "stock company?" Both of these questions will be answered in this article.
Starting in January, 1948, Macdonnell directed many CBS radio series including Doorway to Life, Escape, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Suspense, Romance, Rogers of the Gazette, Fort Laramie, Have Gun Will Travel and others. However, Macdonnell's longest, continuous association was with the radio series over which he had the most creative control: Gunsmoke.
Macdonnell was an adamant believer in selecting actors "who worked well together" rather than actors who worked well individually. Macdonnell sat in the control booth with nearly every Hollywood-based director in CBS radio and observed actors' work, as individuals and groups. His observations gave him extensive knowledge of actors and their skills that paid enormous dividends on Gunsmoke.
The advantages of using a small cadre of regular guest performers are probably best 1 explained by one of the charter members of the Gunsmoke "stock company:" Harry Bartell. Harry appeared in the first and last episodes of the series and over 180 more. During a 1998 interview, Harry talked with the author in general about the Norman Macdonnell "stock" company and specifically about the use of that "stock" company on Gunsmoke.
"One of the major benefits of using the same cadre of actors was that you had great trust in the other actors. You knew, if for some reason if you got off-track or you made a mistake, that they were going to cover for you. And you would cover for them. As a result, there was an ensemble feeling that was very different than if you had a different cast on the show everyday."
"... Gunsmoke was unique. . .. It was an experience different from any other show I did. There was a sense of camaraderie, a great warmth, and respect. No matter how much kidding around there was at rehearsal, once that thing started, it became very, very professional. There was a sense of reliance of one actor on another and through experience being able to anticipate timing, being able to anticipate any changes in line reading from the person with whom you were working. Part of it was the group that worked the show was comparatively limited. Norman Macdonnell got screamed at for having a 'stock company.' I was just very happy to be part of it."
Cast lists of Gunsmoke's 480 network episodes that I have compiled over the last 25 years provide substantial insight into the composition of the Gunsmoke "Stock Company." The number of roles played by each guest actor were compiled from over 400 Gunsmoke radio scripts, 475 available broadcasts, and Norman Macdonnell's own show lists.
While 116 guest actors performed on the series, a core group of 30 guest actors amassed over 88 per cent of the total guest actor roles on Gunsmoke. Four of those guest actors accounted for a total of nearly 1000 roles on the series. Many of these 30 actors also made frequent appearances in other Norman Macdonnell directed series.
480 to 432 Appearances Each (Actors listed in descending number of appearances.): William Conrad, Parley Baer, Georgia Ellis, and Howard McNear. Additionally, Ellis and McNear occasionally played roles other than their Kitty and Doc characters.
The Sturdy 30 - Actors listed in descending number of roles including the occasional playing of two roles in an episode. The Frequent Four Combined Total of 993 ~ John Dehner, Vic Perrin, Lawrence Dobkin, and Harry Bartell.
100 to 25 Roles Each:Sam Edwards, Ralph Moody, James Nusser, Barney Phillips, Joseph Kearns, Virginia Christine, Virginia Gregg, Jeanne Bates, Paul Dubov, and Dick Beals.
23 to 10 Roles Each: Jack Moyles, Helen Kleeb, Ben Wright, Vivi Janiss, Lou Krugman, Jack Kruschen, Jeanette Nolan, Lynn Allen, Joe Du Val, Lillian. Buyeff, Tom Tully, Frank Cady, Joe Cranston, Don Diamond, Michael Ann Barrett, and Eleanore Tanin.
The composition of Macdonnell's Gunsmoke "Stock Company" changed over the years. Some actors moved to the new medium of television and were no longer available for radio roles. A few others got out of acting all together. Tom Tully finished his performances in about 17 months; from mid-July, 1952 to mid-December, 1953. Lou Krugman made most of his appearances between May, 1952 and August, 1953. By the end of July, 1956 five other actors had made their last Gunsmoke performances: Barrett, Cranston, Tanin, Du Val, and Kruschen.
Other actors didn't make most of their Gunsmoke appearances until the series had been on the radio for a few years. Ben Wright made his initial Gunsmoke appearance in the fourth episode, "Dodge City Killer" on 05/17/1952; but he didn't appear again until early 1957, a year in which he made 11 guest appearances, mainly as storekeeper Miles Mc Tagg. One of the most frequent guest actors, Virginia Christine, didn't make her first of over 40 appearances until 12/04/1954. Jack Moyles didn't make the first of his Gunsmoke appearances until 07/08/1956.
Eighteen "stock company" actors made their final Gunsmoke appearances during the last year the series was on the air, 06/19/1960 - 06/18/1961. Ten of these final appearances were during June, 1961; the last month the series was on the air. Five "Stock Company" actors (Harry Bartell, Jeanne Bates, John Dehner, Vic Perrin, and Barney Phillips) comprised the guest cast in the last episode: "Letter of the Law."
So now you know the composition of Norman Macdonnell's Gunsmoke "Stock Company". As for the overall composition of Norman Macdonnell's "Stock Company" from January, 1948 through June, 1961, that might just be the subject of another article.