Mechanisms of Ca2+ sensitization of both myosin light chain (MLC) phosphorylation and force development by protein kinase C (PKC) were studied in permeabilized tonic smooth muscle obtained from the rabbit femoral artery. For comparison, the Ca2+ sensitizing effect of guanosine 5'-O-(gamma-thiotriphosphate) (GTP gamma S) was examined, which had been previously shown to inhibit MLC phosphatase in phasic vascular smooth muscle. We now report that PKC activators (phorbol esters, short chain synthetic diacylglycerols and a diacylglycerol kinase inhibitor) and GTP gamma S significantly increase both MLC phosphorylation and force development at constant [Ca2+]. Major phosphorylation site occurring in the presence of phorbol-12,13- dibutyrate (PDBu) or GTP gamma S at constant [Ca2+] is the same serine residue (Ser-19) as that phosphorylated by MLC kinase in response to increased Ca2+ concentrations. In an ATP- and Ca(2+)-free solution containing 1-(5-chloronaphthalene-1-sulfonyl)-1H-hexahydro-1,4- diazepine (ML-9), to avoid the kinase activity, both PDBu and GTP gamma S significantly decreased the rate of MLC dephosphorylation to half its control value. However, PDBu inhibited the relaxation rate more than did GTP gamma S. In the presence of microcystin-LR to inhibit the phosphatase activity, neither PDBu nor GTP gamma S affected MLC phosphorylation and force development. These results indicate that PKC, like activation of GTP binding protein, increases Ca2+ sensitivity of both MLC phosphorylation and force production through inhibition of MLC phosphatase.