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!
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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.