Sixteen years ago, when most women on the tube were either flibbertigibbets, secretaries or housewives in pearls, the New York Times pronounced her "the only woman character on nighttime television who is her own woman, successful in her own right and who doesn't bask in the reflection of some man."

Little matter that as the bustled keeper of Dodge City's Longbranch Saloon, she had to bear up under the taint of impropriety. Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty Russell became one of TV's most fondly remembered characters, a redheaded trailblazer whose path finally ended last week when Amanda Blake, the actress who played her for nearly two decades, died of cancer at age 60 in a Sacramento hospital.

Recruited in the '50s for a new TV horse opera, the former Beverly Louise Neill, an MGM contract player, very nearly laughed it off at first. "Gunsmoke, schmunsmoke," she later said. "I had no idea it would be a series." But it was, and Blake rode with it, albeit sidesaddle, for 19 seasons, quitting smartly in 1974, the year before it was canceled.

A friend to animals (her four-acre Phoenix, Ariz., spread was once a haven for birds, a lion and 10 rare cheetahs), and to the homeless (she was active in an L.A. hunger program), Blake "in person was very much like the character of Miss Kitty," says Dennis Weaver, Gunsmoke's gimpy Chester. "She had a heart as big as a watermelon."

In 1977 the former two-pack-a-day smoker underwent surgery for cancer of the tongue, had to learn to talk again and began to wage fervid public war against cigarettes as an American Cancer Society spokesman. She was, she happily told friends, "cured." But by this summer the dormant disease had begun to spread again, and last month Blake, worn and frail, entered the hospital for the final time.

Mourning her death, a former coworker recalled that in at least one way, Blake was less prim than her Gunsmoke persona. His "dear friend," said actor Burt Reynolds, once Dodge City's blacksmith, had "the bawdiest laugh of any person I ever knew."