James Arness felt stressed about taking on the role of Matt Dillon
The Gunsmoke star had big spurs to fill.
By the time Gunsmoke became a TV show, the property was already a known commodity due to its earlier radio format. Audiences were accustomed to William Conrad as Matt Dillon, as Conrad brought the Marshal to life over the air. For three years prior to Gunsmoke's debut on CBS, fans already had a Matt Dillon in mind. Now, Arness's job would be to make the role his own on television.
In 1990, fifteen years after the show's final episode, Arness starred again in Gunsmoke: The Last Apache. This second of an eventual five TV movies allowed Arness the perspective to look back on the show's legacy, and he spoke about taking on the iconic role in an interview printed by Scripps Howard News Service.
He began by reflecting back on 1955 when he first saddled up as Matt Dillon to preserve law and order in Dodge City.
"Here we were, young actors, trying to take over these roles, and there was a whole audience out there who were very familiar with all this. They had their preconceptions. On one hand, it was wonderful to have these great stories and scripts. On the other hand, it was kind of stressful because it was like slipping into a pair of new boots. It was like a substitute quarterback who suddenly has to get the ball over in the last few seconds."
Luckily, over the next 20 years, Arness was able to take ownership of the role. But, even though he spent two decades under the ten-gallon hat of the Dodge City Marshal, he never coasted in his role. Unlike many television stars, Arness never took on too many characteristics of his most famous role, nor did Dillon become more like the actor.
"As for the issue of the onscreen personality and the real person, there's no comparison, no way. I couldn't hold down the job of a U.S. Marshal for a week. You might think playing the same character all these years must be a piece of cake, but if you look at it from the standpoint of reality, it is always a mountain to climb."