What would Gunsmoke have been without Miss Kitty? We got the answer in season 20 when Amanda Blake left the Western drama series after its 19th season.
Blake’s role as Kitty was an integral part of the show. Plus, her chemistry with Matt Dillon will keep you on the edge of your couch. No wonder why she was the fan-favorite. Several episodes centered around her sassy character as the owner of Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, highlighting a tough western woman who, ultimately, had a big warm heart. She appeared in over 500 episodes of the television series, which would forever make her mark in the Western genre of television.
She Went Into Semi-Retirement and Instead Devoted More Time To Her Animals
After Gunsmoke, Amanda Blake went into semi-retirement at her home in Phoenix, Arizona, only taking film or television projects once in a while. She said she wanted to devote more time to her animals, now that she has the chance.
Blake made it to the headlines once for bringing her pet lion, Kemo, onto the Gunsmoke set. The pet lion lived in an animal compound at her home, where she and her husband Frank Gilbert were running an experimental breeding program for cheetahs. Yes, you heard it right! They were some of the first to successfully breed cheetahs in captivity and were able to raise seven generations of cheetahs.
In 1971, Amanda Blake joined forces with fellow animal rights activists to form the Arizona Animal Welfare League, which is known today for being the oldest and biggest “no-kill” animal shelter in the state. She also helped finance the start-up of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in 1985. She devoted a great deal of time in support of its efforts, including travels to Africa.
The actress reportedly was a one-time board member of the Humane Society of the United States too. In 1997, the Amanda Blake Memorial Wildlife Refuge opened at Rancho Seco Park in Herald, California. The refuge aims to provide a sanctuary for free-ranging African hoofed wildlife, most of which were initially destined for exotic animal auctions or hunting ranches.
In 1984, Amanda Blake also received the society’s annual Courage Award, which was presented to her by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
On The Controversy Amidst Her Death
Amanda Blake died at age 60 on August 16, 1989, at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, California. But how did Miss Kitty die? It was initially reported that the actress died after a long battle of oral cancer. Blake was a heavy cigarette smoker, and she had surgery for oral cancer in 1977. Afterward, she made appearances throughout the country on behalf of the American Cancer Society.
However, ″that wasn’t the reason that she died, ″ said her physician, Dr. Lou Nishimura. “There was no recurrence of cancer.” Reports later claimed that her cause of death was AIDS, making her the first Hollywood actress of note to die of the said disease. “Technically she died of liver failure brought on by viral hepatitis, which was AIDS-related.”
The actress found out she had AIDS a year before her death and decided to keep it to herself. “Amanda just seemed to accept it. She wasn’t bitter, and she wasn’t angry. That was just the way she wanted it, and we respected it,” says her closest friend, Pat Derby, who founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in 1984 with her husband.
How, then, did she contract AIDS? Dr. Nishimura said he didn’t know how Amanda Blake contracted the fatal disease. Those who knew the actress insist she never used drugs, and she was not sexually promiscuous. A strong possibility is that she got it from her previous husband, Mark Spaeth, a developer and city councilman. Spaeth died of AIDS shortly after their marriage of less than a year ended in divorce. However, when Spaeth was dying, he told the press that he might have contracted his viral infection from Amanda Blake, suggesting she may have gotten the disease in Africa during one of her trips there to observe the wildlife.
Although Dr. Nishimura listed AIDS as the cause of Amanda Blake’s death, it was never made public. It might have stayed that way if it had not been for Blake’s will, which left her entire estate, worth $400,000, to PAWS. Family members of Blake, including an aunt and two cousins, contested the will. They were trying to prove she was mentally incompetent. Pat Derby, fearing that the legal fight would twist the true circumstances of Blake’s death, released the AIDS story herself.
The disclosure shocked a lot of Amanda Blake’s friends. Her agent, Steven Stevens, said he met the actress three weeks before she died. “Her last line when she walked out my door was, ‘Get me a job. I want to do another job. I want to meet more people,” Stevens recalled. “Up to the end, she wanted to pretend everything was okay.”
A Career That Spanned Nearly Four Decades
Amanda Blake, who was born Beverly Louise Neill in 1929 in Buffalo, New York, worked as a telephone operator earning $40 before making it on screen. The job did not only helped her hone her diction skills, but it led her to some radio work and performances doing dramatic readings at a local women’s club.
Eventually, she started her dramatic acting career on the stage. She performed summer stock in New England until MGM discovered her. They saw her as the next Greer Garson, an MGM film star in the 1940s who earned five consecutive Best Actress nominations at the Oscars.
Amanda Blake finally made her screen debut in 1950 in the MGM picture Stars in My Crown. She then began appearing in few Hollywood films such as the western Cattle Town in 1952 and in the starring role of Miss Robin Crusoe, an adaptation of the Robinson Crusoe adventure.
Then she landed at being Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty Russell, which she played on the classic television series for nineteen years. The show was canceled the year after Miss Kitty left the show. But fans got to enjoy the high spirits of Miss Kitty once again when Amanda Blake joined Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, the TV movie that brought the cast back to Dodge City, Kansas, one last time. It was one of Blake’s last roles on screen.
Amanda Blake will always be treasured not only for her roles out in the Wild West but as well as for her contributions to protecting animals. Miss Kitty Russell will forever be one of the strongest female characters in western TV.