Gunsmoke actor Dennis Weaver challenged costar James Arness’s proficiency with his gun after the show had several seasons under its belt.
The bet was simple. Weaver would throw a tin can into the air several feet away from Arness. The latter would be seated, and he’d have to stand and shoot the can before it hit the ground. If Arness hit the can, he got a ten dollar bill. If he didn’t, Weaver added ten dollars to his net worth.
So when Weaver threw the can, Arness hopped out of his chair and brandished his Colt .45. He fired not one, not two, but three shots into the can. In true western fashion, Arness turned to his costar and slyly said “that’ll be one ten dollar bill, please.”
While the bet was friendly in nature, the underlying thought behind it was one Arness dealt with a lot in the early 1960s. Gunsmoke had been on the air for seven seasons. Audiences were questioning if the show was losing steam, as were some of the cast members. In response, Arness said that “his gun would keep smoking” for as long as the series had viewers.
Arness’s prowess with a gun matched his as a leading man. In spite of Weaver’s doubts, the show lasted until 1975. As result, Arness’s character Matt Dillon set a record for longest running character in American television, a record later beaten by first Richard Belzer and later Mariska Hargitay. Ironically, both of those actors are from Law & Order: SVU, however Belzer only won the title when combining SVU appearances as well as those on Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Gunsmoke Star on Lack of a Film Career
While he is certainly remembered fondly for Gunsmoke, Arness does not have many more credits to his name. This, however, was by choice.
“The problem that most TV actors like myself have is that we’re usually offered the small-type movies, where they can exploit our name and shoot it on a small financial budget,” said Arness. “In my case, pictures like that simply want to take advantage of the Matt Dillon reputation, which is exactly what I don’t want. I want major pictures – and I don’t care if it’s not the leading role.”
Arness had no time for those who undervalued television stars. In his mind, he owed more to his fans than to star in some subpar bit part. He didn’t see himself as a name to draw in crowds. Arness wanted to give audiences good entertainment, not cheap cameos.
“I don’t believe in the axiom that people won’t pay to see in a theatre what they can see at home on TV for free,” he explained. “That theory isn’t proven. Why, I’ve had people come and pay six or six-and-a-half dollars to see me for 10 minutes at a rodeo. And they didn’t come just once, either, but packed the places night after night. If people pay to see you in one thing, they’ll pay to see you in something else. But it has to be good. Once they come to know and like you, you’d darn well better be good if they have to pay.”