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Destroy Them From Within: A Look At Kathleen Hite

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The world of classic television is often held up as a boys club. We know these men: Sheldon Leonard, Rod Serling, William Asher. These men are rightly remembered today as just some of the legendary creators who put the shows we still remember today on the air. However, while these men were making their names and reputations, there were a number of women also coming up in television during the time. They were writing, they were producing and one was even directing. These are the women of the golden age of television.

Kathleen Hite was one of my entrees into this area of interest when I found my way to her work on the legendary western series Gunsmoke. As I started reading on this smart and talented creator, one thing became clear to me. As one of the most prolific writers on what was up until recently, the longest running scripted series on television, if her contribution of television could be ignored… think of all the work from talented women which is falling through the cracks.

Kathleen Hite was born in June of 1917 in Wichita Kansas. The Emporia Gazette profiled Hite in May 1962 in an article entitled “Gunsmoke Writer is Proud of her Deep Roots in Kansas”, her early years are described:

Both sets of grandparents came to Kansas in the Old West days and all were great storytellers… my father was a cattleman and we had a family ranch in New Mexico operated by my brother.

After graduating form college in the late the 1930s, she quickly started writing for radio. She was however pulled West when a job at CBS presented itself. Radio Recall, the journal for the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club, provides an unsourced– but still delightful– quote from Hite:

CBS had a policy against hiring women writers so I hired on as a secretary. I figured once I got inside the building I could destroy them from within…I badgered the head of the writing department until he gave me a chance to write.

The article goes on– unsourced– to report that Hite became the first woman staff writer at CBS and before too long was promoted to the position of script editor in 1950 where she wrote for the series: The Adventures of Philip Marlowe until 1951.

She continued writing for radio the middle of the decade. She left CBS in the early 1950s, choosing the riskier, but more fruitful path as a freelance writer. It was in ’54 that she lands her first screen writing credit on Crown Theater with Gloria Swanson. Looking at her filmography, she doesn’t struggle working regularly, she’s billed as writer on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater and Wagon Train throughout the middle of the decade.

Kathleen Hite also did her fair share of creating for the screen. She’s billed as a creator on The Texan alongside writer James Gunn. The series starred Rory Calhoun as a Civil War veteran roaming Texas as a gunfighter. While the series is a bit of a blip in the wave of westerns on TV at the time, it did run for two seasons.

Hite created is also billed as creator– along with Gunsmoke producer Norman MacDonnell– on the series Empire which ran between 1962 and 1964. The series ran for 33 episodes and starred Richard Egan, a pre almost everything Ryan O’Neill and a pre most things Charles Bronson in a dramatic western. The show followed Egan as Jim Redigo, the foreman of a massive ranch and the resulting complications of life and love. This series is perhaps the closest to Hite– at least from an outsiders perspective– as it reflects the pioneering and ranching history in her family.

In fact, Hite is probably best known for her contributions to the long running, classic western Gunsmoke. She joined the writing team in 1957, when the mainstay was in its third season. She’s billed on 42 episodes of the show until the season 10 episode 31 episode “Guilt Guilt”. 

While Gunsmoke ran a massive — for the time– twenty seasons, Hite is one of the more prolific writers on the show behind creators John Meston, Norman MacDonnell and Charles Marquis Warren and writers Les Crutchfield. 

A write-up in the November 3 1961 Alabama Journal paints a fascinating picture of Hite when she was interviewed with Meston and MacDonnell. Throughout the interview, she’s open about the writing process:

I have four more scripts to write and I don’t know how I’m going to do them. I sat all day at the typewriter and just threw paper in the wastebasket.

She goes on, expanding about the toils of being a tv writer:

I watch it every week of if it kills me. And sometimes it can be an awful painful experience. I have a great pride in the kind of dialogue I write and when it is tampered with , as it usually is, it incenses me”.

In a Wichita Beacon article in 1970, she was quoted about her time on Gunsmoke: “I write as many as 12 Gunsmoke (episodes) in a year. That’s the equivalent of six movie”.

Newspaper sources of the period tie her very closely to Gunsmoke, but her tenure with the show ended when the show saw some growing pains. An article in the Wichita Eagle, dated the 8th of June 1975 describes the period: 

CBS fired the co-creators of Gunsmoke, for which she had been writing since its radio days. She says, “I was still under contract with about five scripts that I owed then. They brought in a British movie producer… At my first meeting with him, he asked me if ther really was a Dodge City. I went home and called my attorney.

Hite’s strength permeates from every word of the occasional newspaper features which outline her career during the 1960s and 1970s. One of her ongoing frustrations comes in being rewritten… as all of us do: 

She’s quoted in the Arizona Republic in 1972:

I once tried to tell an actor I’d be happy to play his part and he could spend all his time writing, but he didn’t take me seriously. I wouldn’t presume to act, direct, or produce a show. Yet, they all seem to think they can write. 

Though, when reading profiles like this one published in July 1963, it’s all a woman can do to keep her sanity. Author Charles Witbeck writes in an article titled: “Many of Gunsmoke Scripts Written by a Lady a ‘Miss'”: “The point is Miss Hite can write well for girls, too, but her men’s dialogue doesn’t sound like it came from a woman’s typewriter”.

This is of course comes after the point in the article where Witbeck describes trying to “butter up” Hite by complementing an episode he thought she write, only to realize she didn’t write that episode.

Hite continued writing throughout the few decades, primarily sticking with westerns. Her filmography shows her working on shows like The Guns of Will Sonnett and Lancer. However, her longest stint was on the family drama The Waltons. She’s billed on twenty four episodes of the show between 1974 and 1981. 

She reflects often her time on The Waltons which is probably the other show for which she is the most remembered.

The Witchita Eagle quotes her:

That is a period in which I was most personally interested. Do you realize that John-Boy Walton is in my exact time period? He graduated from high school in 1934 and so did I. He went to a small college and so did I.

The Radio Recall article goes into the most detail about her later writing career. Like many of her contemporaries, she was heavily involved in the writers guild, and was honored repeatedly throughout the course of her career by her contemporaries. She’s often written up in the Kansas papers throughout the 1970s after she donated her full library of her papers to her alma matter, Wichita State University.

Hite passed away in 1989 at the age of 81.

While many remember the western wave of shows during the 1950s and 1960s and networks thanks to networks like MeTV and Antenna TV; however, with each passing year the names and faces behind the camera grow a little more difficult to remember. While period sources tend to bill Hite as the only woman working in the– typically masculine– western genre. She wasn’t alone. Women were working in classic tv in a number of roles and its time we celebrate their contributions.

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Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.

You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!

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