How Did Al Schottelkotte End Up On 'Gunsmoke?'

Jun 16, 2020

Legendary Cincinnati news anchor Al Schottelkotte – called "the first name in news" by WCPO-TV – would be the last man you'd think of seeing in a TV western.

But on Oct. 10, 1964, the no nonsense news anchor appeared as a bailiff in Gunsmoke, the popular CBS western starring James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake and a young Burt Reynolds. Schottelkotte's  "Old Man" episode airs 7 p.m. Saturday on ISPN, formerly the Inspiration Network (Spectrum Channels 53 and 1387; Fioptics 506; DirecTV 364; Dish 259; AT&T U-verse 564; Verizon Fios 286).

The cameo was arranged to boost Gunsmoke ratings in Cincinnati, and promote Channel 9's switch to CBS programming from ABC in 1961, three years earlier.

Al Schottelkotte with 'Gunsmoke' star James Arness in 1964.
Credit Courtesy WCPO-TV

"Dad explained to me that when CBS wanted to promote its shows and pump up the ratings, they would reach out to some of the stations. Cincinnati was a strong CBS property (station)," says Lou Schottelkotte, 59, a salesman for Spectrum Reach advertising. His father died in 1996 at age 69.

Schottelkotte's cameo came after Arness – who starred as Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas – had visited Channel 9. While in town, Channel 9 General Manager Mort Watters treated him to a party on his boat, the Muddy Watters, says Paula Watters, Mort's widow.

"We went out to Mort's boat," she recalls. "Mort probably said to James Arness, 'We'd like to have our newsman on your show.' Al just went out (to Hollywood) for a day or so to film it."

Schottelkotte, a popular Enquirer columnist in the 1950s, dabbled in broadcasting with a 15-minute newscast on WSAI-AM radio at 6 p.m. and anchoring WCPO-TV's 11 p.m. news. He was doing all three when he moved his wife and six children to Finneytown, says Lou, the sixth of Schottelkotte's 12 kids.

WCPO-TV advertisement for the 'Al Schottelkotte News.'
Credit John Kiesewetter archives

Soon after the move, Schottelkotte quit the Enquirer and went full-time as WCPO-TV's news director and main anchor. Channel 9's Al Schottelkotte News was the city's No. 1 rated newscast for 22 years (1960-82).

Sending TV stars to stations in Cincinnati and other markets was not unusual.

Watters remembers hosting a party for Perry Mason star Raymond Burr. Hollywood's top entertainers and national political leaders – from Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Tony Randall, Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Kennedy to Roy Rogers, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlton Heston and Nelson Rockefeller -- frequently appeared on shows hosted by Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Len Goorian, Nick Clooney and others.

David McCallum from NBC's 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'
Credit Courtesy NBC

Lyons' WLWT-TV Lyons' 50-50 Club, the city's top-rated daytime show, welcomed NBC stars Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker (Bonanza), David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Tim Conway and Joe Flynn (McHale’s Navy) and Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie).

But in the early 1960s, Channel 9 didn't have a local variety show. The biggest personalities were Al Lewis, host of the Uncle Al children's show, and Al Schottelkotte. So the news anchor went to Hollywood to appear in an episode in which an innocent man was found guilty of murder.

"It was part of the Al Schottelkotte legend," says Jim Delaney, a former Channel 9 reporter and assignment editor who worked with me at the Enquirer in the late 1970s. "Promotional photos of Al on the Gunsmoke set were used in long Channel 9 News promos that would run in odd hours, especially on the weekend when there were few paid commercials. When his Gunsmoke appearance would come up in conversation, it was clear Al was proud of it."

Although CBS shows have enjoyed strong ratings in Cincinnati for decades, Watters was not happy when Taft Broadcasting, also based here, snatched ABC from Channel 9 in 1961. Taft wanted ABC's 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, The Untouchables, Marverick and other shows, says Luke Feck, former Enquirer TV critic.  Channels 9 and 12 swapped networks again in 1998.

Al Schottelkotte interviews President Gerald Ford on June 7, 1976.
Credit Courtesy White House

Schottelkotte dominated the Cincinnati airwaves like no other newsman, before or since, with a newscast unlike any other. Viewers saw very little of his reporters and lots of pictures – photographs, film or some of the station's 50,000 archived color slides of local landmarks and leaders. The all-visual style inspired Ted Turner's fast-paced CNN Headline News format in the 1980s.

Schottelkotte's 22-year streak was broken by Nick Clooney's newscast on Channel 12, which was boosted by strong ratings for ABC's Happy Days, Dynasty, Monday Night Football and the Olympics.

Schottelkotte's newscasts included his signature news feature, his "Spotlight Report."
Credit Courtesy WCPO-TV

He left the 11 p.m. anchor desk in 1982, but remained on the 6 p.m. news until Carol Williams was hired in 1986. That's when Schottelkotte became president of the Scripps Howard Foundation. He was one of the five initial members of the Cincinnati Journalism Hall of Fame established in 1990 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Seeing Cincinnati personalities on network TV wasn't unusual, either. Lyons co-hosted NBC's Today show in 1958. Channel 12's Glenn Ryle (Schnitker), best known as children's host Skipper Ryle, appeared on Chuck Connors' The Rifleman on Oct. 9, 1961 on ABC, shortly after the stations' network swap. Braun did cameos on NBC's Julia starring Diahann Carroll and The Doctors soap opera in 1970, and Another World in 1983.

Schottelkotte did a second CBS cameo, by voice only, on Gilligan's Island on Jan. 6, 1966. He read the radio newscast heard by Gilligan and the castways saying they were wanted for questioning about a murder before they departed for their ill-fated three-hour cruise.

"I was a little kid watching our usual TV shows after school, Gilligan's Island and Green Acres," his son says. "All of the sudden, when they tune in a radio on Gilligan's Island, the voice says, 'This is Al Schottlekotte from WCPO.'

"When I went to school the next day, all the kids said, 'Your dad was on Gilligan's Island!' They had all watched the show, too. The funny thing is that he had been on TV for years, but the fact that he was on Gilligan's Island elevated him to rock star status with my friends."