Miss Kitty was long the fan-favorite on Gunsmoke. The sassy owner of Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City was played by actress Amanda Blake, a woman who would forever make her mark not only in the western genre of television but also in society through her passionate work as an animal rights activist.
Blake was actually born Beverly Louise Neill in 1929 in Buffalo, New York. Fun fact, she's a distant relative of Kate Barry, a heroine of the Revolutionary War who helped the Americans beat the British at the Battle of Cowpens. This battle was instrumental in helping the Americans win at Yorktown. An only child, Beverly Louise stayed in New York until she was a teenager but decided to move out West to California. She was able to get a job as a telephone operator, which actually got her into acting. The gig allowed her to gain some experience working in radio before eventually leading to the screen.
Before making it on screen, though, the redhead was able to perfect her acting chops on the stage, which is where she was discovered by major Hollywood studio MGM. They decided that she was going to be the next Greer Garson, one of the biggest draws to the box office in Hollywood during the '40s. Blake made her film debut in 1950 in the western film Stars in My Crown. It seems only fitting that she would kick off her career in the Wild West, which is how she'll always be remembered. Her name was changed to Amanda Blake, which does have more of a ring to it than Beverly Neill.
Before becoming Miss Kitty, Blake starred in another western film, Cattle Town, opposite Dennis Morgan. She also starred in the female adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, Miss Robin Crusoe. But she's best known for her role as Kitty Russell, which she played on the classic television series for 19 years. Fans loved watching her relationship with Marshal Matt Dillon to see what would happen next. It's also probably not a coincidence that the show was canceled the year after Miss Kitty left the show...but maybe that's just us. Blake came back to play Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, the TV movie that brought everyone back to Dodge City, Kansas, one last time. It was one of her last roles on screen.
Outside of her acting career, Blake was incredibly passionate about animals. She even had a pet lion, Kemo, that she brought to the Gunsmoke set. She somewhat retired after the show ended and lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where she bred cheetahs. That's right, Blake and her third husband Frank Gilbert began experimental cheetah breeding on their property and ended up raising seven successive generations.
Blake went on to help found the Arizona Animal Welfare League which is now the oldest no-kill shelter in the state of Arizona. She later traveled to Africa. She was also a board member of the Humane Society of the United States. As a supporter of the American Cancer Society, President Ronald Reagan presented her with their annual Courage Award in 1984.
In 1989, Amanda Blake passed away at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, California. Reports later claimed that her cause of death was AIDS, though that wasn't listed on her death certificate.
Years after her death, the Amanda Blake Memorial Wildlife Refuge was opened in Herald, California, as a refuge for African wildlife rescued from auctions and hunting ranches. Blake will always be treasured for her contributions to protecting animals as well as her roles out in the Wild West. Miss Kitty will forever be one of the strongest female characters in western TV.