James Arness had a serious opinion about rock 'n' roll and Western stars

James Arness loved playing a part in the Old West, but rock 'n roll? Not so much.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

James Arness was the quiet type while he was away from his character, Marshal Matt Dillon. His Gunsmoke character was known for his strong moral code, sense of justice, and fairness, but off-screen Arness was known to limit personal appearances and interviews.

Although his face was seemingly everywhere during his time on the hit Western, Arness did a great job keeping a low profile in his personal life. 

According to a 1957 interview with The Montgomery Advertiser, many of our favorite Western stars started dabbling in music, signing on with sponsors, performing stand-up, and making personal appearances at rodeos across the country.

But not Arness. He said dancing with other stars and selling products just simply wasn't for him.

"It may be fine for other actors, and I don't mean to condemn them, but it's not for me," Arness said. "If fans see you as a certain kind of guy and if you suddenly come out and do something contrary, such as rock 'n roll, it shocks people. Producers may notice that this guy is versatile. But fans say 'What is Marshal Matt Dillon doing with rock 'n roll?'"

Many of his women fans at the time believed Arness was handsome enough to go into any field he wanted — and they would have stuck by his side no matter which side project he chose to pick up.

Arness was an ex-laborer and carpenter before he began working as an actor in 1949, but he only started making the big bucks with his role on Gunsmoke. Although he was a successful actor, Arness took a stand when it came to his beliefs, and consistently turned down small fortunes to appear on TV shows and to endorse commercial products.

According to the interview, Arness said the market was already flooded with Elvis Presley-types anyway.

"Did you ever see [John] Wayne or Gary Cooper doing rock 'n roll?" Arness said. "So you pick up 10 grand, but you lose a million as far as your future is concerned. A lot of fans write that my show is the only one on TV they buy because it seems real."

Arness went on to explain that an endorsement would make people identify him with commercials — and he knew how much people didn't like watching them. 

"If an actor has no confidence in his future and wants to make a fast buck, okay," Arness said. "But I have confidence in my future. I have a good 20 years left in this business."

Besides not doing rock 'n roll, Arness also limited his personal appearances and interactions with his fans. According to an interview with Kenosha News, Arness said he would limit his lines and scenes to give viewers the illusion they were seeing much more of him than they actually were. He even said he'd cut his own lines on Gunsmoke.

"Maybe part of the success of the series is the fact that the lead characters back off a little and give the viewers a rest," Arness said. "If you notice the shows that have been on the air the longest are the ones where the so-called star isn't on screen all the time."

As much as we would have loved to see James Arness performing a guitar solo, we'll just have to stick to watching him portray Marshal Matt Dillon instead.

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SDWriter 1 month ago
An interesting side note: James Arness’s daughter Jenny dated rock star Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band. Allman said in his autobiography that Arness was a kind, friendly man who treated him well.
There is a very sad side to that, however. Allman broke up with Jenny when he fell for Cher, whom he married. Jenny was so distraught that she committed suicide.
trogg888 3 months ago
I have to respect matt for that.even though I played music for a living all of my life I was in grade school during a lot of the gunsmike run and highschool and matt playing guitar and dancing around would have kinda ruined the image for me
Runeshaper 6 months ago
I'm glad Arness "stuck to his guns" (-:
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