Gunsmoke’ Creator Explained Why James Arness’ Matt Dillon Remained a Hero After His Failures
Gunsmoke featured an ensemble cast with likable lead characters, but James Arness’ Matt Dillon was the face of the long-running Western television series. Many folks would consider him to be the hero of the show. However, the writers intentionally wrote him in a way that showed him in a less heroic light in some episodes, but still asserting that he’s a certain breed of hero. Gunsmoke television show creator Charles Marquis Warren once explained why they allowed Matt to remain the hero nonetheless.
There were many men testing to play Matt on Gunsmoke. CBS went through numerous options before they finally landed on Arness for the part. However, the actor didn’t initially want the part because he thought that investing so much of his time on a television show would be a death sentence for his career. Movie star John Wayne managed to convince him that it would be an extraordinary step for him, which would prove correct.
Arness first took on the role of Matt at the show’s inception in the first season. He would stick around for all 20 seasons, which is a feat that only Milburn Stone can also attest to in playing Doc Adams. Arness found huge stardom in playing Matt on Gunsmoke, allowing him to put any insecurities regarding his casting behind him. Some leading men in Hollywood refused to work with Arness because of his staggering 6’7″ height.
In an interview with Broadcast Telecasting, Warren explained how Gunsmoke deviates from conventions with Matt. As a result, the audience is more compelled to want to follow a flawed, yet humanistic hero through his journeys.
“Chiefly, our series differs from the majority since it eliminates formula and cliché,” Warren said. “Our protagonist, Marshal Dillon, isn’t always the hero, nor is he always in the right. In one story, he is outdrawn and shot by a heavy. In another, he tries to save a man’s life by amputating his leg, but the man dies, notwithstanding. In still another, Dillon tracks down a man he suspects of a murder, is proven by the suspect to be mistaken, is forced to return to Dodge City minus shoes and gun to admit his mistakes.”
Warren continued: “Rather unusual to find the hero in these predicaments? Yes. But the fact is that Dillon still remains a heroic figure as a believable human being, big enough, on the one hand, to retain authority through toughness and big enough on the other to admit his non-infallibility.”
Matt deviated from television norms in many ways over the course of Gunsmoke. There was always a romantic tension between him and Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty Russell. However, the writers never gave audiences what they were hoping to see between the two of them. They clearly shared a love for one another, but neither one of them ever really makes a move that transitions into anything long-term past friendship.
Nevertheless, Gunsmoke fans remained invested in how Matt evolved over the course of the show. They wanted to see him further his connection with Miss Kitty, but they also enjoyed seeing the other lead characters interact with one another. As a result, CBS had a real winner of a show on its hands that continues to stand the test of time.