Actor James Arness was the face of gunsmoke in the role of US Marshal Matt Dillon. However, he initially had reservations about dedicating so much of his time to a television show rather than the prestige of feature films. He ultimately found comfort in the adult Western, flipping to the other side of the fence in wanting to steer clear of the moviemaking industry and all that came with it.
‘Gunsmoke’ actor James Arness originally started in movies
Long before gunsmoke, Arness started his entertainment career after he was discharged from military service in World War II. When he discovered his affinity for acting, he wanted to make a name for himself on the silver screen. He got his start in The Farmer’s Daughter before making the move to sci-fi flicks Them! and The Thing From Another World. However, he had an increasingly difficult time getting cast alongside shorter leading men who were intimidated by his 6’7″ height from him.
Movie star John Wayne recommended Arness for the role of Matt on gunsmoke. Despite circulating rumors, the Western television show never seriously inquired about casting Wayne because they knew that he would never dedicate the time to television. However, he knew that his good friend of his, Arness, would do a wonderful job in the role. He was right.
James Arness thought starring in movies was ‘shaky’
In a 1973 interview shared by The Legacy of gunsmoke, Arness talked about what set the adult Western apart from the rest. He had a strong understanding of not hogging the screen from the remainder of the ensemble cast, providing the audience with more diverse storytelling. The actor became comfortable in the role and did not want to leave it, even when he had to dig a little deeper for his performance of him.
“I still enjoy playing Dillon,” Arness said. “It depends on the scene how much I have to concentrate on his personality and character of him. Sometimes I fall into his characteristics of him. Then again, a really stimulating script will force me to work hard to show different aspects of Matt.”
When the television star was asked if he would consider transitioning to the movie business, he said that he “haven’t the urge” after he took some time to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life.
“I could have tried pictures,” Arness recalled. “But they’re pretty shaky right now. And motorcycle riding doesn’t exactly appeal to me. Television is still the place to be, at least for me. I mean, I couldn’t fit into many of the kind of pictures they’re making these days. Besides, you take the risk of not succeeding in a film. And then there’s all the traveling around.”
The actor concluded: “Each way I looked, gunsmoke appeared to be the best spot. The money’s fine, the people are great, and I have time on my own.”
He got to make ‘Gunsmoke’ movies
Arness later had the opportunity to explore feature films without having to leave gunsmoke. Along with Doc Adams actor Milburn Stone, Arness was the only other actor to remain with the show for its full 20-season run. CBS canceled it without any warning, but that didn’t spell out its concrete demise.
The actor returned for five made-for-TV gunsmoke movies in the same role. The movies were subtitled Return to Dodge, The Last Apache, To the Last Man, One Man’s Justiceand The Long Ride.