In many ways, James Arness was Marshal Matt Dillon. He played his influential, gunslinging, law-enforcing character for a total of 20 seasons. At that point, it was hard to see him as anything other than his “Gunsmoke” character. He had several other roles during his acting career, but none could ever hold a light to Matt Dillon.
It makes sense then that Arness was very protective of his role.
James Arness Protective Over ‘Gunsmoke’ Role
One of his co-stars even spoke about this protective nature. Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty on the show, said it became a natural part of Arness’s life to defend Matt Dillon.
“After about the first five years, Jim got very protective about Matt Dillon’s image. He didn’t want
Matt to make a mistake. It certainly didn’t hurt the show, but I remember thinking sometimes, why doesn’t he ever allow himself to be on the other end of the pole? Why not let Matt be wrong once? Might’ve been interesting. But Jim would never hear of it,” Blake said, according to an interview in TV Guide from 1979.
Arness’s entire attitude toward his character and the role changed over the years. He started out fearing being typecast, but then eventually found the role from CBS to be extremely attractive.
That protectiveness also extended to his cast members. When “Gunsmoke” was canceled suddenly, James Arness brought back as many faces as possible to film the project “How the West Was Won.”
In many ways, Arness had a love-hate relationship with his characters. Both Matt Dillon and Zeb Macahan were TV-Western heroes. James Arness himself really believed in the morality present in shows like “Gunsmoke.” This is also partially why he was so protective of these characters, but also possibly a little frightened. It’s no easy image to live up to, after all.
“I can’t live up to what people believe or think I am,” Arness once said.
John Wayne Got Him Matt Dillon Role
Although James Arness was hesitant about taking on the “Gunsmoke” role, luckily he had John Wayne to help talk him into it.
At first, Arness didn’t accept the interview at all. Although there were a ton of actors wanting the role, the show really wanted Arness. According to MeTV, James Arness was contracted to John Wayne’s company at the time.
“You will really learn your craft if you get in there. You have to work fast, and … you have to pick up your pace, and you’ll learn a whole lot about acting in front of a camera and doing stunt work,” Wayne said regarding the role.
Eventually, Arness gave in and accepted the role. Arness even said that John Wayne had a lot to do with him accepting and sticking with that TV role instead of pursuing film.