Gunsmoke's James Arness: Matador Dillon

When you mess with the bull, you get the horns.

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Gunsmoke debuted just five days after The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, making it only the second-ever TV Western written for adults. Gunsmoke would then last an unbelievable 20 seasons and was the number-one-ranked television show from 1957 to 1961. CBS planned to cancel the series in 1967, but pressures from the network president's wife spared it. Thirty TV Westerns premiered over that 20-year tenure, yet Gunsmoke was the only one that survived into 1975.

All of this was very nearly not the case, all due to a rodeo mishap that could've killed series star James Arness. 

At the 1958 Ohio State Fair, more than 15,000 passionate fans gathered to see Marshall Matt Dillon, the Gunsmoke character portrayed by Arness. The crowd was treated to a skillful cowboy act, wherein Arness demonstrated some gun tricks before pivoting towards a talk about Gunsmoke. When the show was over, a state fair official asked the actor to shake some hands along a fence at the fairgrounds. 

"Sure thing," said Arness, "but won't it hold up the show?"

According to the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, the actor was reassured that the show would work around him and everybody who wanted to meet him. And so, Arness did as was requested. He walked along a wire fence shaking hands as he passed. 

But there was a problem. Even over the din of the crowd, Arness heard the unmistakable tinkling of little bells. He knew, instantly, what the sound denoted. A mistake had been made regarding the show's format. Nobody told the rodeo that Arness would supplement his time onstage by walking through the crowd by the fence. A huge Brahma bull was released from the chute. Somebody had goofed up, and now there was a giant monster charging straight at Gunsmoke star James Arness. 

Luckily, this wasn't his first rodeo.

But he was Marshall Matt Dillon, the bravest man in the Wild West. He couldn't show fear in front of that many fans! Instead, he began edging his way toward the gate. A few yards away, the angry bull snorted and stared Arness down. It had bucked its prior occupant and seemed to be out for blood. While Arness tried to maintain his poise in front of the giant crowd, the bull charged.

Dignity went out the window as Arness scrambled for the nearest fence. Helping hands reached to pull the actor up and away from danger. But even while he was escaping up and over the fence, Arness could feel the bull's sharp horns poking into the seat of his pants.

Had Arness been only a few seconds longer, it would've spelled the end for Marshall Matt Dillon. 

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11 Comments

SDWriter 6 months ago
Marshal with one l, not two. It’s one of the most commonly misspelled words in the language. https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/laying-down-the-law-on-martial-and-marshal-and-marshall
SDWriter 8 months ago
One l in marshal. It’s one of the most misspelled words in the world.
Hire an editor.
CaptainDunsel 8 months ago
Subtitle: "Marketing Fails to Check With Production"
raddad 8 months ago
I’m glad he was able to move fast enough. His legs were shot up during WW2 and gave him some trouble. I remember reading that when the camera started he had to remember to walk straight and Dennis had to remember to limp!
Runeshaper 8 months ago
Wow! That must have been terrifying! Glad he made it (-:
raddad Runeshaper 8 months ago
He was in the pacific and because of his height he went off of landing crafts first. The others could judge the depth of the water by watching him. That’s how he got shot up , and spent a long time hospitalized. Lucky for all of us that he survived and the rest is history.
Runeshaper raddad 8 months ago
Wow! That's intense! Thanks for sharing.
KawiVulc 8 months ago
Got to watch out for those hoverbulls. Stubby legs but they're quick!
AnnaRentzVandenhazel 8 months ago
Good article, but "hoping hands" helped him over the fence?
LynCarrigan 8 months ago
Me too. Great characters and always good stories. Plus horses and my favorite, Buck.
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