Nicknamed the Young Greer Garson, Amanda Blake was born Beverly Louis Neill in Buffalo, NY on February 10, 1929. She was an only child and arrived in Claremont, CA when her family moved. She worked as a telephone operator while taking on bit parts for MGM.
After doing a few minor movie appearances, she landed the role of a lifetime playing Miss Kathleen “Kitty” Russell on Gunsmoke. The 27 year-old became a household name for the next 20 years. Gunsmoke was the longest running Western as well as the longest running prime-time show with continuing characters.
200 half-hour episodes and 400 hour episodes were filmed and was first broadcast in color in 1966. Amanda Blake remained on the series for 19 of the 20 year run and it is believed the show started going downhill in the final year. She had grown tired of playing the role and stated “Nineteen years is a hell of a long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar”.
In 1968 she was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. She was the third performer inducted after Tom Mix and Gary Cooper.
Her career did not do much thereafter but was featured in a Gunsmoke reunion of the characters in 1987 “Return to Dodge”. After leaving Gunsmoke, she semi-retired at her home in Phoenix and only took on a few television and film projects.
Being a great lover of animals, she joined some others to form the Arizona Animal Welfare League in 1971 and to this day is the oldest and largest “No-Kill” animal shelter in the state. In 1985, she helped financed the start-up of Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and devoted much of her time and money in supporting efforts.
She was diagnosed with a form of mouth cancer in 1980, she was a former smoker at that time and spoke up against smoking. She testified before the U.S. House of Representatives urging for a new warning label be placed on cigarette packs. She told the subcommittee “I believe that I would not have smoked had I seen a label on a cigarette package or in a cigarette ad that said Warning: Cigarette smoking may cause death from heart disease, cancer or emphysema.”
She became an avid and active spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, highlighting the evils of smoking. When she was diagnosed with mouth cancer, she underwent extensive surgery which left her unable to speak. She fought this and through determination and hard work, was able to learn to speak again. The Annual Courage Award from the Society was presented to her by President Ronald Reagan.
Amanda Blake died on August 16, 1989 at 60 years of age, her request was she be cremated and her ashes given to her family. Her will stated she wanted all her memorabilia auctioned off and the proceeds given to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the Amanda Blake American Cancer Courage Award.
You can watch the award presentation from President Reagan here: