John Wayne Felt ‘Too Embarrassed’ to Make Money off ‘Gunsmoke’ Actor James Arness as His Boss
Movie star John Wayne was good friends with Gunsmoke actor James Arness before he landed the iconic role of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. After all, his success wouldn’t have been possible without the Western movie legend giving him the opportunity to accept the role in the first place. Wayne once admitted that he felt “too embarrassed” collecting money based on Arness’ work, even though they had a contract.
John Wayne had ‘Gunsmoke’ actor James Arness under contract
In addition to sharing the same birthday on May 26, Wayne and Arness had a lot in common. Their tall heights occasionally made it difficult for them to find work earlier in their careers, but they both ultimately rose to international fame and success. Wayne and Arness became close friends in real life, enjoying good conversation over drinks.
The two Western actors even shared the screen on a few separate occasions, including Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase. Wayne put Arness under his contract, loaning him out to movie gigs, such as Hellgate, Horizons West, The Lone Hand, and Many Rivers to Cross. They shared professional and personal respect for one another that went past the movie business.
John Wayne was ‘too embarrassed’ making money off of James Arness
Carolyn McGivern’s book, John Wayne: A Giant Shadow, explored how Wayne related to Gunsmoke. There were some initial rumors that Wayne was asked to star in the show in the lead role, but it was later confirmed to be untrue. After all, the Gunsmoke decision-makers knew that Wayne didn’t want anything to do with television and never seriously pursued him for the part.
When asked why Wayne stays away from television shows, he responded “because I’m still making good money doing pictures, you know doing the thing I love best.” He was offered a wide assortment of series over the years, but he turned them all down.
It all worked out for the best when Wayne recommended Arness to play the legendary Gunsmoke marshal. However, the actor was under the movie star’s contract, which would have made it difficult to bring him onto feature film projects. It wasn’t long before he decided to get rid of all of his active contracts.
“Jim Arness was under contract to me, but I let him go do it,” Wayne said. “Being an actor myself I couldn’t make money off him, I released all my actors from their contracts, I felt too embarrassed to make money out of them.”
The actor found major success with ‘Gunsmoke’
Arness didn’t initially want to do Gunsmoke, but Wayne convinced him otherwise. He knew that it was a potentially substantial opportunity for his friend, providing stable work and income if the show were to take off. Gunsmoke went on to become one of the biggest shows to ever air on television, snatching the top spot in the ratings for a few years.
Arness played Matt for a total of 20 seasons between 1955-1975. Much like Wayne defined Westerns on the silver screen, Arness did the same for the smaller screen at home. After an unexpected network cancelation, he still returned to his legendary Gunsmoke character for five made-for-TV movies.