Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Life and Times of Amanda Blake ("Miss Kitty" on "Gunsmoke")

Amanda Blake was born Beverly Louise Neill in Buffalo, New York on February 20, 1929.  She was of English and Scottish descent, the only child of Jesse Neill, an industrial banker, and Louise (née Puckett) Neill.  During World War II, the family moved to California because Amanda's father was summoned to the West Coast to work as an engineer as part of the war effort.  

Amanda attended multiple schools in her youth, mainly due to her family's frequent moves.  Most of her grade schools were in the Buffalo area, but she also attended Lincoln Middle/Jr. High in Santa Monica, California.  For her Freshman and Sophomore high school years, she attended Brenau Academy, an all-girls private boarding school in Gainesville, Georgia, but returned to the Buffalo area to attend Amherst High School for her Junior year and the first semester of her Senior year.  She then completed the final semester of her Senior year at Claremont High School in Claremont, California, graduating from Claremont High in 1947.

For a time, Amanda attended attended Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont.  She later took a position as a telephone operator for $40 a week.  That job helped to hone her diction and enunciation skills, which opened the door to some radio work and dramatic readings at women's clubs.  She launched her acting career on the stage by performing in summer stock in New England.

Amanda also began performing in bit parts for MGM studios.  In 1948, she signed a contract with MGM and changed her name from Beverly Neill to Amanda Blake.  The studio envisioned her as its future Greer Garson, the 1940s MGM film star who received five consecutive Best Actress Academy Award nominations.  Thus, she was nicknamed "the young Greer Garson."

Amanda made her motion picture debut as Faith Radmore Samuels in the 1950 film Stars in My Crown, a Western starring Joel McCrea and Ellen Drew.  MGM lent her out to other studios and she occasionally had the lead role in B movies.  Her first television role was in Schlitz Playhouse: Double Exposure in 1952.

Amanda Blake was at CBS when she heard that there were plans in the works to make the Gunsmoke radio show into a television pilot.  "I knew I had to have the part of Kitty," she stated in a 1971 interview.  Many actresses auditioned for the coveted role and Polly Bond, who had performed in a  Western singing act along with her sister, was the original choice for the part.  Bond, however,  turned down the opportunity in order  to focus on family life (She retired from acting after marrying Little Rascals star Tommy Bond in 1953).  Amanda ended up landing the part, and it catapulted her to stardom.  The classic Western made its TV debut in 1955, with Amanda in the role of Miss Kathleen "Kitty" Russell, the feisty owner of the Long Branch Saloon in the western frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas.  Her co-star was James Arness, who played lawman Matt Dillon, a United States marshal. 

Television audiences were captivated by the underlying current of romance between Miss Kitty and Matt Dillion, although she and Marshal Dillon never even shared a kiss on the show, except for one on the cheek at Christmas.  Amanda said that their relationship "is always unresolved."  "Whatever the viewer thinks," she explained, "that's it."

Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon

Below is a 1978 Gunsmoke cast photo - Clockwise from top: Ken Curtis (Festus Haggen), James Arness (Matt Dillon), Amanda Blake (Kitty Russell) and Milburn Stone (Doc Galen Adams)

In 1974, Amanda left Gunsmoke after 19 seasons on the show and appearances in 569 episodes.  She was weary of the commute from her home in Phoenix. Arizona to Hollywood.  She also made no secret of the fact that she had grown tired of playing the role of Miss Kitty.  Indeed, she was quite vocal about it.  Upon leaving Gunsmoke, she declared, "God, if I have to put on that damn bustle and those curls one more time . . . 19 years is a hell of a long time for someone behind a bar."

Amanda Blake's final episode on Gunsmoke is entitled "The Disciple," which originally aired on April 1, 1974.  After Amanda's departure, the writers decided that Miss Kitty had left Dodge City and moved to New Orleans.  Fran Ryan was introduced as Hannah, the new saloon owner.

Gunsmoke only lasted one more season, its 20th, without Amanda.  The show was not the same in the absence of Miss Kitty..  "They gave it a shot for a year after me and it didn't work - that's a nasty thing for me, but it's true," she told Knight-Ridder Newspapers in 1985.

After leaving Gunsmoke, Amanda Blake went into semi-retirement at her home in Phoenix, where she devoted much of her time to animal welfare and conservation..  However, she did make make several television appearances over the years.  She had a starring role n a 1974 television movie entitled Betraval.  She made guest appearances on such TV series as The Quest, a short-lived Western (1976) and The Love Boat (1979) .  Amanda also appeared  in a 1983 episode of Hart to Hart entitled "The Wayward Hart" (Season 4, Episode 18, Air Date: March 8, 1983)  and a 1986 episode of Brothers.  

Amanda even returned to Dodge City one last time.  She portrayed Miss Kitty once morewhen she and James Arness were reunited in a TV movie called Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, which aired on September 26, 1987.  After that, her final acting performances were as Rosie in B.O.R.N., a 1989 feature film thriller, and as Mrs. Sylvia Wilson in a 1989 episode of Dragnet's 13th season.  She finished filming the The Dragnet episode about three weeks prior to her death.  It is entitled "Noveau Gypsies" and it aired on November 30, 1989, just months after her passing.

Amanda Blake was married five times.  She had no children.  Her first husband was Jack Shea.  Her second husband was TV director Don Albert Whitman (born October 24, 1924), whom she wed in 1954.  That marriage ended in 1956.  In 1964, Amanda married Jason Seymour Day Jr., an Arizona cattleman.  They divorced in 1967.  That same year, Amanda wed her fourth husband, Frank Gilbert.  They divorced in 1982.

Amanda Blake and Jason Day

On April 28, 1984, Amanda Blake married for the fifth and final time, to Mark Edward Spaeth, a real estate developer and a member of the city council of Austin, Texas.  She left her Arizona home and joined him in Texas.  Mark Spaeth, ten years her junior, had been elected to Austin council in 1983.  In February of 1985, after spending much time undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness, he announced that he would not seek another term on the council.  On April 26, 1985, two days before the couple's first anniversary, Spaeth filed for divorce from Amanda.  In his petition in an Austin state district court, he stated that the marriage had become "insupportable because of discord or conflicts of personalities . . . that destroys the legitimate ends of the marriage."

 At the time of the divorce petition, Amanda was living and working in Hollywood, California.  She had formed a production company to make television films in which she would appear.  Her husband had not attended an Austin council meeting since February of 1985 and was residing in Dallas, Texas.

On May 27, 1985, Mark Spaeth died at the age of 45 at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin.  His death was attributed to pneumonia, but it is believed to have been AIDS-related.  Spaeth was known to have been bisexual and it is likely that Amanda was infected by him.  However, when Blake was dying, he told the media that he may have contracted his viral infection from Amanda, suggesting the possibility that she picked up the disease in Africa during one of her wildlife excursions there.

Mark Spaeth

Amanda's former housekeeper, Jane.Price, claimed that Amanda had confided in her that her marriage to Mark had never been consummated.  Everett Aaker, in his book Television Western Players, 1960-1975: A Biographical Dictionary, wrote that Amanda lied to her housekeeper (presumably to disassociate herself from AIDS).  According to Aaker, Amanda's marriage to Spaeth fell apart when she learned that he had AIDS and that he had known about it two months before their marriage.

Amanda Blake died on August 16, 1989 at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, California.  She was 60 years old at the time of her passing.  It was not until November that an AIDS-related controversy surrounding the cause of Amanda's death emerged.  Until then, her death had been attributed to other factors.  Amanda's unofficial death certificate stated that the cause of her death was "Cardio-pulmonary arrest due to liver failure and CMV Hepatitis."  CMV Hepatitis, is AIDS-related.

There were now reports in the media that Amanda's physician, Dr, Lou Nishimura, had cited AIDS-related complications as the underlying cause of her death, not throat cancer or heart failure as hospital officials had previously reported.(A November 8, 1989 headline in the New York Times reads "Amanda Blake Died of AIDS, Doctor Says.")  Close friends, were concerned that Amanda's memory would be tainted by the revelation that she had died of AIDS, quickly pointed out that she was not a drug user or sexually promiscuous.  They suggested that she may have contracted the disease from her last husband, Mark Spaeth.

In late 1988, Amanda had returned from a month-long trip to Africa appearing unwell.  She "looked awful and really sick., "her closest friend, Pat Derby told People magazine in 1989.  "We thought it was the flu"  Amanda neglected to tell Pat that a doctor in Africa had told her that she had AIDS.
Concerned about her friend's declining health, Derby convinced the reluctant Amanda to seek treatment in Sacramento from  Dr. Nishimura.  She went to see him and underwent tests which confirmed that she had AIDS. She received treatment with AZT, but her condition did not improve.

According to a 1995 article in  People magazine, Amanda Blake suspected that she had contracted AIDS from Mark Spaeth.  She spent the final two years of her life in seclusion on the Gait, California ranch with her friend Pat and Pat's husband, Ed Stewart.  Even though Amanda had retired, she was fearful of the consequences if it became know that she had AIDS, since there was a great deal of stigma attached to the disease at that time.  Pat Derby told People that Amanda "was terrified of what would happen" if people learned the truth." She said that Amanda also feared she would lose support for the sprawling 20-acre (8.09 hectare) ranch, a home for retired performing animals that she had established with Pat and her husband.

Amanda had wanted to keep her diagnosis and subsequent illness out of the headlines.  On August 13, 1989, three days before her death, she made changes to her will.  She bequeathed her ranch-style home in California's San Fernando Valley to PAWS. the Progressive Welfare Animal Welfare Society.  The estimated value of the home, which Amanda had left vacant when she went to live with Pat Derby and Ed Stewart, was $400,000.

As a result of the changes to the will, some of Amanda's relatives, including an aunt and two cousins, with whom she had not been in contact for years, came forward and contested the will   They contended that she was not of sound mind because she was suffering from head and neck cancer..  The court then refused to alter the terms of the will.  Two months later, Dr. Nishumura dropped the bombshell that Amanda had died of AIDS- related complications.

Even though Dr. Nishumura had cited AIDS as the cause of Amanda's death, that information may never had been made public if family members had not contested her will.  Fearing that a drawn out legal battle would cause the true circumstances of Amanda's death to be twisted, Pat Derby took it upon herself to make the AIDS story public.


* During her school days, Amanda (then known as Beverly) was nicknamed "Barry" by her peers.

* A heavy smoker for years, Amanda Blake underwent an eight-hour surgery for oral cancer in February of 1977.  She immediately gave up smoking and became an avid supporter of the American Cancer Society, appearing at its fundraising events around the United States.  As a result of her efforts, Amanda was awarded the organization's Courage Award, which was presented to her by then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in 1984.  She also received the American Cancer Society's Sword of Hope award in 1985.

* Amanda was known for bringing her pet lion, Kemo, to the set of Gunsmoke.  Kemo lived in an animal compound at Amanda's home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she and her fourth husband, Frank Gilbert, operated an experimental breeding program for cheetahs.  The couple were among the first to breed cheetahs in captivity and the cheetahs were sold to American zoos.

* Amanda's dog Butterfly, her beloved "little mutt," was with her at the time of her death.  Amanda rescued the dog from a pound.

* Amanda appeared on games shows such as Password and Match Game.

* From 1956 until 1971, Amanda made appearances on the daytime drama The Edge of Night.  She portrayed Dr. Julianna Stanhower.

* In 1959, Amanda was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Series for her role as Miss Kitty.

* Amanda was cremated and her ashes were spread over the animal reserve she co-founded.

SOURCESChicago Tibune, "Miss Kitty Beats Cancer to the Draw," by Ena Naunton (Knight-Ridder Newspapers), February 20, 1985; People magazine, Friends - and Her Doctor - Say AIDS, Not Cancer, Killed Gunsmoke's Amanda Blake, by John  Stark and Eleanor Hoover, November 20, 1989; People magazine, "Fallen Stars," by Jane Sugden, November 13, 1995; Television Western Players, 1960-1975: A Biographical Dictionary, by Everett Aaker, McFarland & Company, Inc, 2017; Claremmont High School Alumni Society website (; Los Angeles Times, "Rights for Amanda Blake of 'Gunsmoke' Planned, by Myrna Oliver, August 18, 1989; Find a Grave website (; Internet Movie Database (

- Joanne

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