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."

Watch Gunsmoke on MeTV!

Monday - Saturday at 1 PM & 1:30 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?
Close

6 Comments

Andybandit 2 months ago
I can't see William Conrad playing Matt Dillon other than on
the radio. James Arness played a great role as Matt Dillon. If only his brother Peter Graves guest started on Gunsmoke, unless he did.
Snickers 2 months ago
Wow, 20 years playing the same character. I remember the old black and white episodes that were only half an hour long before they went to the hour color episodes.
Runeshaper 2 months ago
I can totally understand and relate to that stress. Only natural, IMO.
Irish 2 months ago
ARNESS... auto correct 👎
Snickers Irish 2 months ago
Whoops, a little case of happy finger maybe? That's O.K we have all done it one time or the other. My main issue is fat finger on small keyboard disorder.
Irish 2 months ago
To be honest, I really can't see any other actor playing the part of Matt Dillon. James Harness was one of my favorite actors. Irreplaceable!!!
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?