James Arness wasn't keen on Gunsmoke at first
He accepted the role somewhat reluctantly.
Depending on when you were introduced to Gunsmoke, the main character is forever one of two figures to you. William Conrad's vocal performances first gave Marshal Matt Dillon a voice on radio broadcasts. Then, James Arness anchored the live-action television series as the same Dodge City lawman. Both are iconic, but at least one of them came close to not existing at all.
It's a well-worn story that John Wayne was instrumental in securing the role for his buddy Arness. But one part of the tale that isn't as familiar is Arness' reluctance to accept the role.
Obviously, in hindsight, saying "yes" to being Matt Dillon was the best decision in James Arness' acting career. Strictly from a financial perspective, the choice paid off handsomely. By 1974, Arness was being paid $35,000 an episode. Adjusted for inflation, that sum is closer to $190,000. This was his rate whether Matt Dillon was the primary focus of the episode or not. There were 24 episodes in that year's season, and Dillon was only at the center of six of them.
26 different actors auditioned for the role of Matt Dillon before John Wayne intervened and suggested a very tall friend of his for the job. But, interestingly, according to a quote in the Washington Post, James Arness didn't want the job in the first place.
"I wondered if people might not get sick of the sight of me," said Arness.
Luckily for both the actor and his fans, John Wayne was able to convince Arness to join the show's first season. Wayne even introduced the series in its first episode. The Duke could be very persuasive, which ended up being a good thing for Arness and Gunsmoke both.