James Arness ‒ Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS’s long-running “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975) ‒ died Friday at age 88. Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with the TV legend upon the 50th anniversary of what has been hailed as TV’s first adult western.
“Matt Dillon was the kind of guy who’s low-key but stands for what is right,” said Arness from his Los Angeles home. “And he goes about seeing that things turn out that way – with, of course, a lot of people suffering along the way.”
Arness — the imposing (6-foot-7) older brother of Peter Graves — broke into movies by doing bit roles for such legendary filmmakers as John Ford, William Wellman and John Sturges. He was the titular being from another world in Howard Hawks’ “The Thing.” He also appeared as an FBI agent investigating giant ants in “Them!”
From accounts, Arness was so embarrassed to be playing The Thing in full fright makeup, he hid from the rest of the cast, lunched alone.
“Not at all,” Arness said, setting the record straight. “Gee, it was a great break for me at the time because I was struggling to get any kind of job, and that was a picture of course that got a tremendous amount of publicity and turned out getting me other work afterward.”
John Wayne was originally approached for the Marshal Dillon role. He turned it down but recommended buddy Arness, his co-star in “Big Jim McLain,” “Island in the Sky” and “Hondo.” “It was ridiculous that they even went to Wayne,” Arness recalled. “He was the biggest western movie star of all time and they must have known he couldn’t take it.”
Arness earned $1,200 an episode at first, but after the show won Emmys and topped the ratings, he renegotiated for $20,000 an episode and said, flat-out, “No press!” (TV Guide dubbed him the “recluse on horseback.”)
“Once we got going,” he recalled, “my agents were able to rewrite my contract and get me a really good salary that matched the popularity of the show. But when you think of what those kids get today on shows – phew! – it’s unbelievable. But what I got was great for that time.”
Arness attributed the show’s staying power to behind-the-camera talent, like “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah. “The only thing I can say is that we had great writers and we always tried for realism … We sort of pioneered the adult approach. These were stories that dealt with universal issues, like betrayal and redemption.”
The series also benefited from Arness’ minimalist acting. He would shoulder his way into a scene and let his physique do the talking.
“Yes, Dillon was a no-nonsense but multidimensional character,” he said. “I didn’t play the character as much as the character played me.”
In the show’s pre-credit sequence, Marshal Dillon and an anonymous gunfighter would square off at high noon. The other guy always drew first, but Dillon’s bullet found its mark.
“They sort of made a point of that, which I thought was right,” Arness says. “As any policeman today will tell you, it’s not the idea of getting the first shot off, it’s hitting your target. Often the first guy that shoots misses.”
Each week, Marshal Dillon was joined by his worrywart deputy, Chester (Dennis Weaver), who walked with a pronounced limp, and the phlegmatic Doc (Milburn Stone) and hard-bitten Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), who ran the Long Branch saloon. Burt Reynolds and Ken Curtis, who replaced Weaver, would later join the ensemble.
Given the show’s often grim tone – and its fearless tackling of such issues as rape and revenge – it’s not surprising that CBS’ front office had to battle the censors.
The censors, he recalls, “limited us down to so many shootings per show and so many fistfights, but it didn’t seem to affect the show. We kept on ticking; the producers wrote around this new set of rules.”
There was also much conjecture about Miss Kitty. Was she a madam who ran a brothel, or just the proprietress of a hotel-saloon?
“That all started on the radio show, that premise of her running a house,” Arness replied, laughing. “But when you get it on the small screen, it just doesn’t work that well. So they transitioned that off quickly and just made her the owner of the Long Branch.”
A decorated war hero who sustained injuries during the assault on Anzio, Italy, in 1944, Arness walked with a limp away from the camera. But he didn’t complain. “Oh, I’ve got a little arthritis that I have to deal with. I was 6 feet 7 when I started and I’ve shrunk up a little bit. I’m probably 6-5 or so now. But up here at 82 I feel pretty good. I’m sticking in there.”