James Arness, the lucky actor who was ultimately chosen to play Gunsmoke’s leading man, Marshal Matt Dillon, was in his thirties when the first season aired.
Gunsmoke is still one of the most beloved shows in the American Western drama and has made history as one of the longest-running shows on television.
Throughout the course of the show’s 20 seasons, it followed James Arness in the leading role as Marshal Matt Dillon.
Although Arness was a notorious jokester when the cameras stopped rolling, the character of Dillon used his calm and level-headed demeanor to maintain the peace and a relative sense of law and order in Dodge City, Kansas.
How the role of Matt Dillon was cast
When news first broke that the popular radio-drama, Gunsmoke, would be turned into a Western for the small-screen, Hollywood was abuzz.
And of course, casting the show’s leading man was one of the Gunsmoke producers’ top priorities.
Quite a few different actors, including now-big names like Raymond Burr, Richard Boone, Denver Pyle, and William Conrad, who voiced the character for the radio series, all auditioned for the role.
But in the end, Arness’s charisma proved to be exactly what the role needed, and he was cast to play this now-iconic role from the first episode of Gunsmoke, which originally aired on September 10, 1955.
Arness was born on May 26, 1923, and had only had a short acting career before the Gunsmoke television series had put out its casting calls. This means that he was only 32 years old when he landed the role of a lifetime.
James Arness’s Gunsmoke run
Gunsmoke was eventually cancelled by CBS in 1975 after the show had aired a total of 20 seasons.
As the show’s titular character, Arness made an appearance in every single Gunsmoke episode that ever aired, making his character truly synonymous with Gunsmoke’s 20-year run.
Though as any longtime Gunsmoke fans will know, Dodge City’s kind of Wild West politics often proved quite difficult for the Marshal to keep under control and Arness’s run on the show, and some of his near-death moments as chronicled by Sheila Givens for the True West Magazine, can be summarized as follows:
|First episode title
|“Matt Gets It”
|Last episode title
|Total appearances (in episodes)
|Total times shot
|Total times knocked unconscious
|Total times stabbed
|Total times poisoned
How James Arness’s acting career started
James Arness became such a legendary actor through the years that it is sometimes difficult to imagine him doing anything but pulling out his best cowboy-moves for the cameras. But acting was actually not Arness’s first career choice.
Arness left home at the age of 18 and was drafted into the army during his freshman year at Beloit College in 1943. Arness even suffered a serious injury to his leg during an invasion in 1945, and was eventually honorably discharged.
It was only after his stint in the Army that Arness decided to go into the entertainment industry, first as a radio announcer and then as an actor with his first role in The Farmer's Daughter in 1947.
James Arness initially turned down the offer to portray Matt Dillon
Although the news that Gunsmoke was coming to television spread across Hollywood like a wildfire, Arness was initially uninterested in taking the role.
The actor revealed in the over-two-hour-long interview that he did with Henry Colman in 2002 that he took the advice of the director of a film that he was filming for at the time and told the Gunsmoke producers “Thank you very much but I think I’m going to pass.”
Fortunately, the producers were so certain that Arness was the right man for the part that they called in the help of his old friend and fellow western-star, John Wayne, to convince him. Wayne then not-so subtly informed Arness that he was being “crazy.”
James Arness’s life after Gunsmoke
Even though Arness was considered one of the biggest stars in television while Gunsmoke was airing, he was always an incredibly private man who rarely did interviews or shared his personal stories with the public.
However, Arness did not shy away from the limelight once Gunsmoke had come to an end.
In fact, Arness continued to act for pretty much the rest of his life. The actor went on to reprise the role of Matt Dillon for the Gunsmoke television movies, but also earned new roles in How The West Was Won and McClain's Law.
Arness eventually even released a memoir called James Arness: An Autobiography in 2001, about a decade before he passed away in 2011, at the age of 88.