No one in Hollywood really knew the real James Arness — and he liked it that way

"Jim is the mystery man," said his costar Amanda Blake. Even Carol Burnett developed a big crush because he was so elusive!

For the three-part Gunsmoke episode "Gold Train," Matt Dillon receives a bullet wound that Doc decides is beyond his skill level to operate.

This sends the Marshal on a harrowing journey by train to see a specialist.

The whole sprawling episode, it's bad enough the lawman is on the brink of paralysis, but then the action amps up even more when a gang hijacks the train, led by an outlaw who bears a very deep grudge against Matt.

It's certainly a gripping episode, and it's one in which you see how much this seasoned cast of characters truly cares for one another.

During the third part, Festus fills in as the hero, as Doc overcomes his fears of inadequacy to ultimately save Matt from losing feeling in his limbs forever.

By 1971, Gunsmoke had been on the air for 16 years, and you'd think that would give the main cast plenty of time to get to know one another, but famously Gunsmoke star James Arness was, as The Tallahassee Democrat wrote in 1973, "one of the most private men in Hollywood."

His closest onscreen costar Amanda Blake, who played Kitty, said Arness kept everyone at a distance.

"Jim is the mystery man," Blake said. "Like most men, he's an overgrown 12-year-old. He's delightful, charming, one of the funniest men I've ever known. I really don’t know much about him, because he's a private person. But he's fun to work with."

She said in the whole time she'd shared the screen with Arness, his cool but charming demeanor never changed, and Festus actor Ken Curtis agreed.

"I've been on the show 10 years and Jim hasn't changed one iota," Curtis said.

To Curtis, this sealed-off part of Arness' personality was likely the reason why Gunsmoke went on so long. It was a good thing he kept to himself and never started any drama with anyone over all those years.

"I've seen many shows go down the drain because the star becomes impossible and disliked by everyone," Curtis said. "He's terrific to work with. When the time comes to buckle down to work, he's ready."

In 1973, Arness was named broadcasting's Man of the Year, an honor won almost entirely on the strength of his enduring character work as Matt Dillon, but also propelled by a fascination the general public had with Arness.

Who was he, really? They must've thought: Let's name him Man of the Year and find out!

At this time in his life, Arness rarely made any public appearances. He'd never be found chatting up fans beyond a cordial autograph signing here and there. Instead, he spent his time sailing or skiing at his Hawaii vacation home or flying his private plane to disappear into Baja California.

Nobody really knew what he was up to, and he liked it that way.

His costars didn't mind him putting up a privacy fence around his personal life. They were happy to work with such a laid-back star.

"He's the most unhypocritical man I know," Millburn Stone, who played Doc, said. "He's consistent. He is what he is, lives the way he does, and that's it."

When Arness accepted his Man of the Year award, it was a big deal. A thousand people packed into the audience as the tall TV cowboy made that rare appearance in the real world.

Hosting the event was comedy legend Carol Burnett. She made a crack about how hard it was to get close to Arness, and also admitted to harboring a big crush on the quiet cowboy!

"I'm thrilled to be giving this wonderful award to this wonderful man," Burnett told the crowd. "I don't know this man, but I've had the hots for him for years."

Taking the award from Carol, Arness demurred. Instead of giving a speech and showing a glimpse of who he was inside, he kept his stage face on, saying, "Those are mighty kind words, gal. I'd like to invite you over to the Long Branch to walk up those stairs with you."

Just a year short of 50, Arness then made a crack at his age, always shrouding any personal candidness with references to his famous show.

"Kitty and I have been walking up those stairs for 18 years and if it goes on much longer, they'll have to move the room downstairs," he joked.

As Gunsmoke's long TV run wound down through the next few years, Arness kept quiet about how he enjoyed his own fame and fortune, and who he was at home.

But he did tell that crowd of 1,000 in 1973 that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t describe himself as "Man of the Year."

One of TV's biggest stars of all time used a humbler clump of words to sum himself up.

"I'm a lucky guy," he said, tipping his hat and ducking back out of the public eye.

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Susan00100 10 months ago
His younger brother, actor Peter Graves, was just as reticent.
Jamesatkinson 15 months ago
Great article on Arness, most definitely in my top five TV actors of all time. Hell John Wayne liked him no need to say more. 👍🇺🇸
ChrisEHolley 15 months ago
I had a great pleasure in talking to him once. He was extremely polite and a wonderful man to talk too. This was many years after the show ended. He asked me what my favorite episode was. I told him I couldn't remember the name of the episode, but i did loved them all, but if I had to pick. It was one Chester's uncle showed up and though he was the marshal. He looked at me and gave me a chuckle, said he liked that one too.
sistervic 15 months ago
I love Gunsmoke from the beginning, my favorite are shows in black and white, Perry Mason, and others. ME TV is great, family oriented, I love it. God bless you all.
mtm sistervic 15 months ago
Me too...give me a world of b&w any day. I climb inside of all those old programs...Perry Mason and all those tv westerns...and kinda lose myself in the 50's each day....God bless MEtv
WilliamRussell mtm 15 months ago
Ah but they're starting to push 21st century stuff off on us.
edbreyer 15 months ago
In 2011 James Arness appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show and it was a great interview. Take a couple minutes to watch it here: https://www.billoreilly.com/video?chartID=323&pid=11951
HeleneNeiman 15 months ago
Two other Western actors who were so nice in real life, like him, were Fess Parker and Clint Walker. I heard about all three of their passings while in attendance at The Memphis Film Festival, a gathering in honor of the old Western TV and Movie actors.
NancyEddy 15 months ago
"Gold Train" is among my fav episodes of Gunsmoke -- entirely because of the little speech Kitty gives when she think that Matt's asleep, and at the end, he tells her, "I noticed, Kitty." (sigh)
Ndraper2021 NancyEddy 15 months ago
"Gold Train" is my favorite one also, mostly because of Kitty's speech to Matt when she thinks he's asleep. I always wanted those two to get together, and kiss, but they never did. I guess they "hid" their love. My other favorite one is where all the bad guys come in and take over Dodge City, and Matt gets shot trying to ride out of town, and Doc looks at Miss Kitty and kind of shakes his head, and she thinks he is dead. Then later, after Doc has pulled the bullets out of him, he's really alive, and she sees him and runs across the Long Branch and he takes her in his arms----oh I wish that could have been me!!! What a man!! I'm still in love with him!!!
AgingDisgracefully 15 months ago
I have a hard time picturing Jim channeling his Inner Frank Burns and saying, "None of your beeswax!"
Tlor 15 months ago
I did a bit of surfing and there is plenty of information on the man from where he was born, his brother Peter Graves, his time in WW2, his two marriages and some tragic family history. Maybe he was a quiet man for a reason.
OVkid 15 months ago
I heard that Jim Arness was a war hero in WWII. He was the first man to hit the beach at Anzio in Italy.
Ndraper2021 OVkid 15 months ago
Yes, he was. He was wounded in one leg and in later episodes when he's a little older you can kind of see him limp just a bit from that wound.
RonLipton 15 months ago
It was my distinct honor to have been included in Jim's autobiography. I stayed in touch with him all through the decades. He visited me in the hospital in the 1950's when I was very ill as a child. He sent me signed photos through the years and we spoke on the phone. HIs wonderful portrayal of his on screen character especially in the great black and white episodes meant a lot to me. He expressed a lot of joy to me knowing I became a police officer in later life. He was a man of integrity and kindness and I will always miss him.
Tampammm RonLipton 15 months ago
Great story,,,thx.
Ndraper2021 RonLipton 15 months ago
You are so very lucky to have known him.
CharSchreffler 15 months ago
I had a crush on James Arness when I was about 15 . 1959.My family always liked Gunsmoke. I liked Chester, Festus, Miss Kitty, Doc. and Newly, and Chad, I think I missed one actor, who played the Indian blacksmith. Oh yeah. Sam the bartender. And the 5 movies of Gunsmoke. And How the West Was Won. I have a great colored picture. I think it might have been in the late 60'S, . Everyone one smiling but James Arness, and another young actor, chad maybe. Matt in front with Miss Kitty.
Tlor CharSchreffler 15 months ago
the blacksmith? Burt Reynolds .. Quint?
TheSentinel Tlor 15 months ago
Yep, that's him.
RichLorn CharSchreffler 15 months ago
Glen Strange was Sam the Bartender. When he was much younger he could be seen playing a heavy in some Hopalog Cassidy flicks. If I'm not mistaken he was also the Frankenstein Monster in Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Susan00100 CharSchreffler 10 months ago
The young man's name was "Thad", not "Chad".
Roger Ewing (Thad) and Buck Taylor (Newley) are the last surviving cast members of that great show.
MrsPhilHarris 15 months ago
Kitty and Matt went up the stairs together? 🤔 That was allowed on tv back then?
Runeshaper 15 months ago
This is such an AWESOME article! I never knew much about James Arness and it seems like many others didn't either. He was a GREAT actor and seems like he was a grateful and humble person. He absolutely ROCKS in Gunsmoke! (-:
Deleted 16 months ago
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Tampammm 15 months ago
Amen! No comparison.
mtm 15 months ago
Thats because he makes these "stars" of today look like pipsqueaks...both literally and figuratively.
TheDavBow3 16 months ago
Great story, yes. I remember that Gunsmoke episode the story was talking about. I was @ 6 and it was exciting!
Andybandit 16 months ago
Nice story. It is nice to know that James was a nice guy in real life. A lot of celebrities are rude and they go on vacation every other day.
Adanor 16 months ago
I admire actors and actresses that can just come on to the set, do their job, and then get on with their life. And they have the money to go off to another part of the country or even overseas to get away; even to have a second home some place.
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