“Gunsmoke” star James Arness understood that his persona of the daring, righteous Marshal Matt Dillon would never hold up without good stunt people. His longtime stuntman, Ben Bates, doubled for Arness over 25 years of his acting career. What did Bates get in return? Well, not only did Arness gift him with his iconic .45 from “Gunsmoke,” he insisted that the humble stuntman get a pay bump with each passing year.
We have no doubt that Ben Bates was deserving of every penny he earned and was probably worth more. Stuntpeople are woefully undercelebrated, considering they’re the ones that make some of our favorite action sequences possible in the first place.
Fortunately, “Gunsmoke” icon James Arness knew Ben Bates’ value and treated him accordingly. Bear in mind that the Marshal Matt Dillon actor stood a towering 6′ 7″ tall. And it’s not as if many men were anywhere close to that stature playing leading roles on hit series in the 1950s. There aren’t many today, for that matter.
All of this is to say there weren’t a ton of opportunities out there for a similarly 6’7″ stuntman. Ben Bates’ career was forever changed by linking up with James Arness. The two made each other look good for decades. In James Arness: An Autobiography, Bates is quoted as saying Arness “would make them pay me more money, and the outstanding way he treated me is something I will never forget.”
Heartwarming enough on its own. But nothing compared to the gesture Arness offered when their time on “Gunsmoke” came to an end. The Marshal Matt Dillon actor gifted Bates with his iconic sidearm.
“‘You mean more to me than putting this into a museum somewhere.’ You can imagine how that made me feel,” wrote Bates in the 2001 book.
‘Gunsmoke’ Co-Stars Spoke Highly of ‘Mystery Man’ James Arness
For all of his generosity when it came to his stuntman Ben Bates, James Arness was a bit of a mystery to his co-stars when he wasn’t working.
Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty Russell on “Gunsmoke” from 1955 to 1974, talked about his disposition.
“Jim is the mystery man. Like most men, he’s an overgrown 12-year-old. He’s delightful, charming, one of the funniest men I’ve ever known. I really don’t know much about him, because he’s a private person. But he’s fun to work with,” said Blake, per MeTV.
Ken Curtis, the actor who played Festus on “Gunsmoke” from 1959 to 1979, credited Arness with the show’s unprecedented longevity.
“I’ve seen many shows go down the drain because the star becomes impossible and disliked by everyone. He’s terrific to work with. When the time comes to buckle down to work, he’s ready,” Curtis added.