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.

 

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10 Comments

dazeofwine 6 months ago
James Arness should have been happy to just put food in the table. He was gifted a good job. I hope he realized that, I think he did later in life.
Jeffrey 6 months ago
The article mentions that James Arness as "Very tall friend of John Wayne". Was Arness taller than John Wayne? Or was Wayne taller than Arness? or the same height maybe?
Jimbarry45 Jeffrey 6 months ago
Arness was taller
LynCarrigan 6 months ago
Gunsmoke - one of the best shows ever on TV. Wonderful characters and always a good story. Good acting and good writing. And I’ve always coveted Matt’s Buckskin horse, Buck.
joenic27 6 months ago
In the early to mid-1950s television had a stigma as a place for those who couldn't cut it in films or a place for former film stars to park. That may have played into Arness' reluctance, and luckily for fans of the series he took the role. By the 60s much of that stigma was gone, largely thanks to the success of actors like Arness.
DocForbin 6 months ago
I guess John Wayne would understand about wanting to turn down a role one didn't want. After all, he did play Townsend Harris (the United States' first Consul-General to Japan and who has ties to my area given he was born in Hudson Falls NY) in "The Barbarian and the Geisha". The movie didn't do too well at the box office and I'm pretty sure die-hard fans of Wayne are scratching their heads over as to why he took on that role. I did see the movie upon the recommendation of now late Kingsbury Town Historian Paul Loding when it aired on The Family Channel (now Freeform) and I actually liked it.
MyHottWife 6 months ago
In January 1955 was the very 1st show titled "Matt gets it" It was a hit and CBS scheduled gunsmoke for a fall debut. The rest is history!
cperrynaples 6 months ago
Fun Fact: In his introduction to the pilot, Wayne said the audience better get used to Arness like they did with him! IT WORKED!
Snickers 6 months ago
Kind of hard to understand someone not wanting a job with a steady income.
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