Amanda Blake was the screen name of Beverly Louise Neill, born February 20, 1929 in Buffalo, New York. She moved while still a child along with her family to Claremont, California.
First professional steps
She worked as a telephone operator while landing bit parts for MGM, who had signed her to a contract in 1949. Her first film credit was in Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950). Additional early work included Stars in My Crown (1950), Duchess of Idaho (1950), Lili (1953), Sabre Jet (1953), A Star Is Born (1954), The Adventures of Hajii Baba (1954), High Society )1955), and The Glass Slipper (1955). She was hailed as a young Greer Garson. She appeared on TV on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1952), Lux Video Theatre (1953), Cavalcade of America (1953), and Four Star Playhouse (1954).
Amanda's ship comes in
In 1955 she landed the role that made her famous, that of Kathleen 'Kitty' Russell, owner of the Longbranch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas. Amanda Blake was only 26 when she began her work on the show. In 1958, along with fellow actors Dennis Weaver and Milburn Stone, she was part of a singing trio which toured fairs and rodeos with success. On Gunsmoke she had the difficult task of portraying a dancehall queen, managing a saloon and the activities therein while maintaining the censorship standards of TV during the 1950's. Her relationship with Marshal Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) was more an implied relationship rather than an explicit one. Her character was perhaps the most one dimensional of the regular cast because of difficulties dealing with her occupation. She remained faithfully on duty at the bar while her love interest was out rounding up criminals, dragging in drunks, and surviving gunfights. She was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1958, but lost out to Barbara Hale of Perry Mason. She spent 19 years of the show's 20 year run dispensing whiskey and advice. She left the show in 1974 due to boredom with the part. In an interview she said "nineteen years is a hell of a long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar". She also missed her friend Glenn Strange, who played the part of Sam the bartender, who had passed away in 1973. In 1968, she was the third person and the first female inductee into the Gallery of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Other professional work
After leaving the show she was to find her career quickly diminish. During her Gunsmoke years, she had appearances in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956), State Trooper (1957), Studio One (1958, and General Electric Theatre (1959). Following Gunsmoke she had appearances on The Quest (1976), The Love Boat (1979), Hart to Hart (1983), The Betrayal (1984), The Edge of Night (1984), and in a Gunsmoke reunion show Return to Dodge City (1987), the first of several TV movies based on the long running series. She appeared in The Boost (1988) and B.O.R.N. (1989). Amanda Blake had also made appearances on TV game shows Match Game '74 and Hollywood Squares, among others.
If at first you don't succeed
Amanda Blake had been married five times. Her husbands were:
Jack Shea, dates unknown
Don Whiteman (1953-1955)
Jason Day (1964-1967)
Frank Gilbert (1967-1982)
Mark Spaeth (1984-1985)
A passion for animals
While performing in occasional projects, Amanda had time to pursue other interests. She was an avid fan of animals. She, along with her fourth husband Frank, had been the first successful breeders of cheetahs at their 4 acre ranch in Phoenix, Arizona. She joined others to form the Arizona Animal Welfare League in 1971. She also had been instrumental in creating the Sato Mutt Competition in Phoenix, Arizona as a reaction to purebred dog shows. She helped create and finance PAWS, (Performing Animals Welfare Society) in 1985 and invested both time and funds to its ongoing operations.
Tragedy, triumphs, and farewells
Amanda Blake, who had been a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1977 and underwent major surgery and rehabilitation to regain the ability to speak as a result. She was a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society from 1980 through 1982, earning their Courage Award, presented to her by then President Ronald Reagan. In the early 1980's, she was diagnosed as having AIDS. It is unknown how she contracted the disease but is believed to have contracted it from her fifth husband, a reported bisexual. He had died from the disease shortly after their marriage. She died in Sacramento, California on August 16, 1989. Cause of death is listed as cardio-pulmonary arrest due to liver failure and CMV Hepatitis, a result of having AIDS. Initial reports of her death did not mention AIDS but were later amended to include the information. She died at the age of 60.
The Amanda Blake Museum and Wildlife Refuge is located at the Rancho Seco Park in Herald, California. Her will specified that she be cremated and her ashes spread upon the refuge she had supported. Her memorabilia were to be auctioned and the proceeds to go to PAWS.