James Arness, ‘Gunsmoke’s’ Marshal Matt Dillon
James Arness, the towering (6-foot-6) actor who for 20 years portrayed the taciturn, lantern-jawed U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in CBS’s Gunsmoke, died Friday. A cause of death was not disclosed, but according to the Associated Press, he died in his sleep at his Brentwood home. He was 88.
Arness, who was born James Aurness but dropped the u from his name for show business purposes, was a reliable television presence as television’s Dillon from 1955 to 1975, when the show was cancelled. It was one of the longest-running television series for years, until the show Law & Order tied its record in 2010.
“Gunsmoke was the longest running and one of the most popular Westerns in television history,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate curator of Western history and popular culture. ” For 20 years, Americans welcomed the residents of Dodge City into their homes. At the center of every episode was Marshal Matt Dillon, beautifully played by James Arness.”
The series was intended as an “adult” western, and in line with the times, Arness’s character was no flawless hero, but showed weaknesses as well.
“Western heroes had traditionally been men with God-like qualities,” Richardson said. “They never lost their temper or a fight, and they always made the right decision. Matt Dillon was different. He certainly shared the virtuous qualities found in previous heroes, but he was also flawed. He made mistakes and when he got punched, he bled.”
Along with the steely-eyed Dillon, other regular and beloved characters on the show were Miss Kitty, played by Amanda Blake, Festus, played by Ken Curtis, and Chester, played by Dennis Weaver.
The Autry has several items from the show in its collection. On display in the Imagination gallery is his full Marshal Dillon outfit, with badge included.
When he was offered the role at age 32, Arness reportedly turned it down at first. But John Wayne, a good friend and the person who had recommended him for it after turning it down himself, counseled him to take it, the AP reports.
Evidently, he didn’t want to have to compete onscreen with a big man like Arness.
“Guys like Gregory Peck and I don’t want a big lug like you towering over us,” he told Arness. “Make your mark in television.”
After the series was cancelled, Arness went on to other Western roles, including ABC’s How The West Was Won in 1978-79. He also starred in the NBC police drama McClain’s Law in 1981-82
Arness, an intensely private man who nevertheless was pulled into the spotlight by personal tragedies, had to face his daughter Jenny’s apparent suicide in 1975 and then his ex-wife Virginia’s death two years later. Both died of drug overdoses.
Arness was also the older brother of actor Peter Graves, the star of Mission Impossible who went on to star in dozens of TV shows and movies, including a a late 1980s revival of Mission Impossible. Graves died in March 2010.
Richardson said Arness’s death also marks the end of an era.
“It was the humanity that Arness brought to the role that made the character and series special,” he said. “Today, with the passing of James Arness, we have lost a true national hero. They do not make Westerns like they use to and that may be because few men can wear a badge like he could.”
Here’s a look at an early episode of the show: