Here is the advice James Arness gave to aspiring actors in 1970
This fair and just lawman was quite the quiet one. In 1970, Arness gave actors advice on how to keep viewers' attention.
Image credit: The Everett Collection
James Arness played one of the coolest characters in the Old West. Marshal Matt Dillon was cool, calm, and collected. He was also the epitome of what it meant to be a fair and just lawman and kept himself composed even when going head-to-head with livestock, outlaws, and bad guys.
Arness was on our television screens as Matt Dillon for a total of 21 years, or 20 seasons. Gunsmoke fans were able to get really familiar with Dillon, Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), Doc (Milburn Stone), Festus (Ken Curtis), and the rest of the Dodge City residents.
Gunsmoke became the longest-running Western in the U.S., and with Arness at the forefront of the success, he quickly became an inspiration for many young actors who were trying to navigate television.
In a 1970 interview with The Peninsula Times Tribune, Arness had some advice for young actors who were rushing to get into television, especially those coming to TV from film.
Arness said actors should not count the number of scenes and lines that are given to them. While many actors believe the more lines the better, Arness thought the audience preferred fewer lines.
With 20 seasons of Gunsmoke, he must have been doing something right. Arness was never much of a talker, but here's why: He limited scenes and lines sufficiently to give viewers the illusion that they were seeing more of Matt Dillon than they were.
His method gave viewers a rest from heavy dialogue and showed that the actor wasn't solely thinking of himself. He was one caring cowboy.
"There is a different psychology between the theater and the television screen," Arness said. "With too much dialogue an actor can talk himself right off-air. People get tired of looking at him and listening to him."
Clearly, people never tired of looking at and listening to Arness. Although Arness was on the quiet side on Gunsmoke, he said he would do a "heavy show" four or five times a year.
"By that I mean I will play the major figure in the story," Arness said. "The rest of the time I don't press it too much. Other characters take over. If you notice, the shows that have been on the air the longest are the ones where the so-called star isn't onscreen all the time,"
According to the interview, Arness said he also was careful to not oversell himself or Matt Dillon. Arness, Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons), and Lorne Green (Bonanza) were all big on preventing overexposure. They were careful not to overexpose themselves by appearing on talk shows or as guest stars in other TV series.
Arness said he also limited personal appearances out of fear of overdoing it. With this method in mind, Gunsmoke became super successful, and Arness said he didn't have the urge to do anything else.
"Last year I sat down and analyzed what I wanted to do," Arness said. "I could have tried movies, but they're pretty shaky right now. Anyhow motorcycle riding doesn't appeal to me. No. Television is the place to be. We have a popular show, a well-coordinated crew, and about as fine a cast an actor could care to work with."