Editor’s Note: Actor James Arness, immortalized in his portrayal of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke, died Friday, June 3, 2011, at of natural causes at his home in California. He was 88. American Profile had the honor of featuring Mr. Arness in a 2008 story on the enduring popularity of the television series with which will be forever associated.
This story was originally published Oct. 26, 2008.
Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy were straight-shootin’ good guys who helped popularize cowboys on television. But none of them was a match for Marshal Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke, television’s first “grown-up” Western—and its most groundbreaking.
“This was in the ’50s and ’60s, when television wasn’t allowing writers to do too much in terms of civil rights, immigration or the communist threat. All these things were off-limits in terms of drama. But you could do them by couching them in a Western setting,” says David Bianculli, former TV critic for the New York Daily News and a columnist for the website tvworthwatching.com.
Set in the late 1870s, Gunsmoke had its share of cattle rustlers, bad guys and shoot-outs, but it also explored the lives—and issues—of its characters, a menagerie of the fair-minded marshal and the other inhabitants of Dodge City, Kan. “The writers and directors brought timeless stories to TV viewers that still stand up today, with themes such as racism and religion,” says James Arness, who starred as Matt Dillon. “These were all new ideas to television at that time.”
The role of Dillon originally was written for John Wayne, who turned it down in favor of his blossoming movie career. But the Oscar-winning actor recommended the 6-foot, 6-inch Arness, who previously had only small roles, and also introduced the TV series on its opening night.
Gunsmoke also starred Amanda Blake as saloonkeeper” Miss Kitty” Russell, Milburn Stone as the town’s physician, Doc Adams, and Dennis Weaver as deputy Chester Goode, whose limp marked one of TV’s first regular characters with a physical disability. When Weaver left the show in 1964 to star in the short-lived series Kentucky Jones, Ken Curtis was hired to fill the void and played deputy Festus Haggen until the series ended its 20-year run in the spring of 1975.
“I had a book signing at the Gene Autry Museum (in Los Angeles) and an 80th birthday party there,” recalls Arness, now 85, who has outlived most of his co-stars. “Many of the actors and writers came by to see me, which was a lot of fun. Over the years, I kept in touch with quite a few. I kept in touch with Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone until they left us, which was a sad day for all of us.”
Weaver, who went on to star in McCloud and Emerald Point N.A.S. and become an environmental and humanitarian activist in the latter years of his life, died at age 81 in 2006 from complications from cancer. Blake, who continued to guest star on other shows when Gunsmoke left the air in 1975, was 60 when she died in 1989, contracting AIDS from her fourth husband and eventually succumbing to liver failure brought on by viral hepatitis. Curtis continued working in other TV Westerns, including The Yellow Rose and Conagher, and was 74 when he was felled by a heart attack in 1991. Stone also suffered a fatal heart attack in June 1980 at 75 years old.
Another memorable Gunsmoke character was Quint Asper, played by Burt Reynolds from 1962 to 1965. “When Burt was on the show, more women were writing to him than to me,” Arness says, then laughs. “Wonder why!”
These days, Arness is involved with his favorite charity, United Cerebral Palsy, and he created his own website, jamesarness.com, through which he constantly hears from fans and admirers.
“I especially like the e-mails from the younger generation who watch with their parents or grandparents,” he says. “Many people write to me and say they can’t find anything today where they can sit down with the whole family and enjoy an evening show together. Gunsmoke had that quality, and people remember that and pass it on.”