James Arness: Haven’t seen one contemporary role yet I’d ever want for myself, all that stuff about marriage problems and all those urban problems
Gunsmoke actor James Arness made a killing playing U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon over the years. He became an invaluable asset for the network, CBS, as the biggest actor starring in its most successful title. Arness drew a lot of attention from Hollywood thanks to his work on Gunsmoke, but he no longer had much interest in pursuing the feature film business. The Western actor turned down an epic John Wayne movie to keep on playing Matt.
The casting department had their work cut out for them when approaching the character of Matt. Actors lined up around the block to audition, but it took them some time to find the right fit. Arness perfectly captured the Gunsmoke marshal of Dodge City, instilling further humanity in him from the radio show on which the television show was based.
Along with the lead actor, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, and Dennis Weaver also served on the initial principal cast. However, only Arness and Stone remained for the full 20 seasons. Unfortunately, the Doc Adams actor died in 1980, which was before Gunsmoke came back in the form of made-for-TV movies starting in 1987.
According to David R. Greenland’s book, The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, Arness was offered a transition into the movies. He initially got his start there and had aspirations to make it further, but his height scared off other leading men who didn’t want to share the screen with someone so much taller than them.
Wayne was a Western movie legend and Arness’ close friend. In fact, he convinced the newer actor to take the dive into the television show, which proved to be valuable advice. However, Wayne was the one who later offered him a role in his directorial debut epic The Alamo, which landed in theaters in 1960. Nevertheless, Arness turned down the part because he felt a sense of loyalty to Gunsmoke and his character. He was offered the role of Bowie, but it ultimately went to Richard Widmark.
The Alamo is an epic historical war movie that takes place in 1836, as the Mexican army invaded Texas. In response, a group of soldiers puts their lives on the line to create a diversion for their allies. They realize that their cause is hopeless, but they want nothing more than to stop their enemies from destroying the new Republic of Texas.
Wayne had high hopes for The Alamo to earn attention at the Academy Awards, which it did. However, it didn’t quite reach the heights that he was expecting it to achieve. The film walked away with only one win in the Best Sound category. Meanwhile, it earned nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Song, and Score.
Arness was proud to star as Matt in Gunsmoke for as long as he did. He was known to never take himself too seriously, establishing a very positive working atmosphere. However, Arness took the work itself seriously. He became so utterly attached to the Western world in Dodge City that he expressed in Greenland’s book that he had no interest in tackling contemporary stories.
“Haven’t seen one contemporary role yet I’d ever want for myself, all that stuff about marriage problems and all those urban problems,” Arness said.
Nevertheless, Arness went on to play the lead role in a police drama called McClain’s Law for NBC. The show didn’t have the staying power of the Western television show that received the axe, lasting only one season from 1981 to 1982.