James Arness reflects on breaking Hollywood norms: How ''Gunsmoke'' changed TV forever

Arness' career followed an uncharted path.

CBS Television Distribution

Now, more than ever, the gap between television and movies is negligible. It used to be the case that the biggest stars in the world maintained their celebrity and critical acclaim through film. There were two separate echelons of stardom; movie stars were favored over TV shows. While TV brought its stories and faces into the living rooms of millions, when it came time for important awards and artistic merit, most people agreed that film was the medium to pursue. 

But today's prestige dramas and comedies can draw the biggest stars to the small screen. It's hard to imagine a time when an actor's career was trending downward if they joined a TV show after several movies.

James Arness was certainly afraid of the reputation TV had, at least according to a 1989 interview in The Tennessean. The Western legend reflected on his decision to join Gunsmoke, and how hard the choice was.

"I was under contract to [John] Wayne's company. I had been there for two or three years and had appeared in about four of his pictures. Then Gunsmoke with CBS came up. They approached me about it," said Arness. 

"It sounds ludicrous now, but back then, in 1954, the little box was about 10 inches across and full of snow and you could hardly see the people. I wasn't sure. I was kind of on the fence about it. I was in Wayne's office one day and he suggested very strongly that it would be the thing to do. Being who he was, I put quite a bit of weight on that opinion. I wound up doing it. Never had the faintest idea that it would go."

So, what separated Gunsmoke from its competition? According to Arness, it all came down to realism.

"We got into a sort of a mindset where we felt like we were really there and this was really happening. It's a hard sort of intangible thing that occurs," he said.

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3 Comments

McGillahooala 1 month ago
Great story. Great actor. I love hearing about the ins and outs of making tv shows back then.
GOOSEYGOOSE9 1 month ago
Burt reynolds after Dan august was cancelled In 1971. He went to be in movies grew a moustache.
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