He was a big man. He stood 6’7” tall…on his left leg. His right leg was 5/8ths of an inch shorter, a result of his military service in Italy a few days after the landings at Anzio. He wore a lift in his right shoe to balance him out. James Arness was a big man, and the role he played in the early days of television was fittingly a big part.
James Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1923. Never a good student – he often skipped classes – he managed to graduate from high school in 1942. Rejected by the Army Air Force – he had wanted to be a fighter pilot but was five inches too tall – he worked at various menial jobs until being drafted in 1943 as an infantryman. Serving with the 3rd Infantry Division he was the first man off his landing craft during the Anzio landings because of his height; his commander thought that how high the water came on him would be a good gauge of the depth for the rest of the men – it came up to Arness’s waist. A few days later he was shot while serving as point man on a night patrol. He spent over a year in Army hospitals and was honorably discharged in January 1945. At the suggestion of his brother Peter (who would later act under the name Peter Graves) he enrolled in a radio announcing school and got a job as a disc jockey at a Minneapolis radio station. A few months later he quit that job and joined a friend on a trip to California.
In California, Arness made a variety of show business contacts and decided to use his GI Bill benefits to study acting at the Bliss-Hayden Theater’s little theater school. His first screen role was in the Lorretta Young film The Farmer’s Daughter as one of Young’s brothers. Other small film roles followed in such films as Battleground (directed by William Wellman and starring Van Johnson) and Wagon Master (directed by John Ford and starring Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson). He also appeared as the title character in The Thing From Another World, and as an FBI agent in Them. His big break came when he signed with John Wayne’s production company Batjac. They developed a close friendship and Arness co-starred with Wayne in four films – Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island In The Sky, and The Sea Chase. And it was through John Wayne that Arness got the role that made him a legend – Matt Dillon.
While there is apparently no truth to the story that Wayne was approached to play the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, he was a vocal advocate for his protégé James Arness to get the part. Initially Arness was uncertain about taking the role. Like many actors of the time he worried that doing television would stall his film career. Nevertheless he took the part, and after getting an enthusiastic endorsement from Wayne, who filmed an introduction to the first episode of the show, he stayed with the show for twenty years, as well as five made for TV movies. Including the movies, he played the character of Matt Dillon in five decades; the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s for the series, and the 1980s and ‘90s for the movies. After Gunsmoke was cancelled in 1975 Arness appeared as Zeb Macahan on the ABC series How The West Was Won from 1976-78. His last series was McClain’s Law. The drama was something of a departure for Arness in that he was playing a modern role rather than appearing in a period piece. The series ran on NBC for sixteen episodes and was criticized for its violent content.
James Arness didn’t create the character of Matt Dillon. Beyond the shows creators, the elements of Mister Dillion’s character were really put into place by William Conrad who played the part on the radio show. Conrad had a tremendous voice that fit our collective image of the Western lawman. If you ever have the chance to hear Conrad playing Dillon on one of the radio episodes – and heaven knows there are a ton of podcasts that play episodes of the radio Gunsmoke on a regular or occasional basis – do it, setting aside what you know of how Conrad and Arness looked, and you’ll understand how perfect Conrad was for the part…on radio. The trouble is that Conrad, who had been a fighter pilot during World War II, was a big man who got bigger over the years. Although my good friend Ivan Shreve points out that Conrad looked a lot like real western lawmen of the period looked, his body type was not what we the audience expected out western heroes to look like. We wanted John Wayne in Stagecoach or Fort Apache rather than John Wayne as he would appear in True Grit. We wanted someone big and powerful who radiated power and masculinity. In other words we wanted James Arness. Arness created the visual image of Matt Dillon and in so doing created a visual template for the way that Western lawmen should appear, at least if they were the lead character in their shows.
And because Arness played the role of Matt Dillon for so long, he had the opportunity to get better with age in terms of fitting the role. It used to be a feminist talking point the while women got wrinkles, men got “character,” but in James Arness’s case it was true. As James Arness grew older he face grew craggier and became more interesting. He increasingly became the wind-blown and dried plainsman, tough as rawhide but with a kindly side that you saw in his eyes. I suppose that if anyone remembered the radio shows with Conrad’s voice they might say that as he aged, Arness looked more and more like Conrad sounded.
By most accounts Arness was a generous actor in terms of letting his co-stars carry episodes from time to time. While Gunsmoke had a very strong primary supporting cast for Arness – including Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Ken Curtis, as well as Burt Reynolds and Buck Taylor for shorter terms – the show could hardly be described as an ensemble show. Marshal Dillon was very much the most important character on the show, and there were indeed episodes where the supporting characters were seen only in cameo appearances. For Arness to allow himself to be put himself into that sort of situation, particularly early in the show’s existence, shows something about the man’s self-confidence and his willingness to let others have their time in the sun. Later these absences had a practical aspect to them. As he got older Arness’s war wounds were becoming increasingly stressed by the physical aspects of playing Marshal Dillon. By the end of the series Arness was having considerable difficulty mounting a horse, which is a definite liability when doing a Western series. Thus you had episodes that focused almost entirely on characters like Festus, Doc Adams, Miss Kitty or even Newly O’Brien (Buck Taylor), where Dillon would only appear sitting at table having a cup of coffee with other characters on the show.
In the wake of James Arness’s death there have been numerous comments in various blogs and in response to newspaper articles that spoke quite glowingly about him, and Gunsmoke, particularly the early seasons of the show which in the opinion of most commenters were the show’s best seasons. I won’t dispute that. I would however point out that Gunsmoke was a show that lasted twenty years on network television at a time when network TV was the only game in town and there were only three networks playing the game. It survived that long by adapting to the changing trends in the medium, and by responding to actions like the protests about violence in the media. The show evolved over time. But Matt Dillon didn’t evolve; he didn’t have to. The ideals that he stood for, upholding the law and making sure that the the weak were defended from the strong were valid throughout the show’s run. They may have been black & white concepts that wouldn’t necessarily be in keeping with the whole notion that things have to be looked at in a nearly infinite number of shades of grey, but for this show and this character they were the right ideals. In the end James Arness’s portrayal of Matt Dillon embodied these ideals.
In the end, James Arness and Matt Dillon were lucky to have found each other. It is impossible to imagine anyone else – including John Wayne – being able to fit into the role of Matt Dillon, and it is just as had to imagine Arness having the success that he did without being Matt Dillon. It was the perfect confluence of actor and part. James Arness was meant to be Matt Dillon and Matt Dillon wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t been played by James Arness.
I’m including two clips of opening sequences from Gunsmoke here. The first is from 1964 (based on the clip for the next episode), and the second is from the period after the show was cancelled in 1967. The first title sequence is the classic “the bad guy shot first but Matt shot best” opening, while the second version is the only one that I could find of the “Matt racing his horse across the prairie” opening that turns into the insets of the actors along the Main Street of Dodge City. The riding sequence was reportedly shot on the day that the cast found out that the show had been cancelled. Reportedly they were shooting a scene where Matt was riding across the prairie and he just let go in and rode his horse hard as a sort of catharsis and the director decided to keep the cameras rolling.