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Why Gary Busey's One-Episode Stint On Gunsmoke Was So Significant

In the fall of 1955, while much of America was still "liking Ike" and buying affordable homes in subdivisions, co-creators Charles Marquis Warren and Clyde Ware's "Gunsmoke" debuted on CBS. Only a few years prior, those homes would have been considered complete with only a radio, but by the time the fundamental TV western came streaming into living rooms, jumpstarting a genre and introducing audiences to James Arness' Dodge City Marshal Matt Dillon, 50% of them were furnished with a television (via the Digital Public Library of America). 

What began as a radio show took all of 20 weeks to skyrocket to the top of the TV ratings race, where it would remain for almost a decade (via The Los Angeles Times). What made the record-breaking (and holding) western so different from the handful of attempts that preceded it was its audience: As L.A. Times reporter Cecil Smith wrote in a now-archived article chronicling the groundbreaking series, "the western in early TV, as it had been in radio, was a kids show ... 'Gunsmoke' broke the field wide open." Of course, part of appealing to a more mature audience (and of maintaining a viewership as impressive as the long-running series) meant that the stakes had to be higher. 

Gary Busey's character was the last casualty of Gunsmoke

By today's standards, the bloodless, play-acting violence of "Gunsmoke" appears extraordinarily tame, if not cartoonish, but the show still killed off characters. And, unlike in cartoons, when characters died, they stayed dead. This reality is relevant not only to the series' legacy (see: "Yellowstone"), but to the importance of guest-star Gary Busey's one-episode appearance in the series.

In the 20th and final season of "Gunsmoke," the up-and-coming Busey starred as doomed cowboy Harve Daley. After being kicked in the head by a horse, Daley suffers what he doesn't realize is a fatal injury. Although he doesn't know it, Milburn Stone's Doc has given him less than a week to live. Ultimately, Doc's prognosis proves accurate, and Daley dies from a brain tumor at the end of the episode, titled "The Busters" (via IMDb). 

Notably, though the series still had two episodes to go, Busey has the honor of being the very last character ever to die on the show (via Outsider). The series finale of the seminal western, "The Sharecroppers," aired on March 31st, 1975, and although it features the shooting of a farm boy named Abel (Terry Williams), every character involved manages to survive the episode (via The Paley Center for Media). Three years after his historically significant demise on the genre and era-defining show, Busey would go on to star in "The Buddy Holly Story," where he'd give his most critically lauded performance both to date and to this day (via IMDb).