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James Arness: May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011

June 4, 2011

There was never a role better-suited for an actor nor an actor better-suited for a role than James Arness who was, and always will be, Marshal Matt Dillon. There wasn’t an American kid alive in the 1950’s and 60’s who didn’t know Marshal Dillon. James King Aurness (his real name) died yesterday at the age of 88. The character he created, however, lives on in the minds and hearts of everyone who ever watched the TV series “Gunsmoke”. Dillon was much more than a character in a TV western… his goodness and virtuosity made him a role model for boys everywhere. Yes he shot a lot of men, but never unless they forced him to do so. He despised killing, but it was a necessary part of his job of enforcing the law in Dodge City, Kansas in 1873.

Before TV came along, “Gunsmoke” was a hit radio drama with the part of Dillon played by the rotund William Conrad. Six-foot-six James Arness almost didn’t take the part when Gunsmoke moved to TV, but his friend John Wayne talked him into it and the TV show premiered On Sept. 10, 1955. “Gunsmoke” didn’t just appeal to kids, like other early TV westerns. It’s mature themes and realistic supporting cast endeared the show to adults as well. The popularity of the show, the cast, and especially James Arness made it the longest-running primetime dramatic series in the history of television when it was finally cancelled in 1975.

But the nostalgia over “Gunsmoke” never faded from the minds of TV audiences, and in 1987, Arness reprised the role in five CBS made-for-TV movies: “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge City” (1987), “Gunsmoke: The Last Apache” (1990), “Gunsmoke: To the Last Man” (1992), “Gunsmoke: The Long Ride” (1993) and “Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice” (1994). The reunion movies deviated little from the original series, although many viewers who believed that Dillon should end up with Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty were dismayed to learn that Dillon had indeed been with another woman. He had a romantic “encounter” with guest-star Michael Learned in a 1973 episode and apparently created a long-lost daughter (Amy Stock-Poynton) who appeared in “The Last Apache” and subsequent films.

Usually, when a celebrity dies, I make note of it and go on about my business. But when I heard that James Arness died, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. To me, Matt Dillon was a hero, a role model, and a friend. I hope that “Gunsmoke” plays forever in re-runs because the kids growing up today need a role model like Dillon to show them what a real man is supposed to be. It seems ironic that Arness died of natural causes rather than in a shootout with some bad-ass gunslinger. It’s difficult to separate Arness from Dillon. Dillon was a peace-loving man and I understand that Arness died peacefully in his sleep. It would be fitting for him to be buried in a prominent place on Boot Hill.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2011 6:07 PM

    I remember watching this everday after school. It was such a part of my life. I don’t think I ever really liked it so much but it was always there. Of course my dad watched it all the time. And Dillion was a good man. It was probably a long long time before I realized what Miss Kitty really was. Oh well a girl has gotta do what she has too. They should have let them get married at the end of the run. Well we can just all think that they did. Strange I thought he would have been a lot older and dead already.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 19, 2014 12:52 PM

    My husband and I hardly ever miss an episode of re-runs of Gunsmoke (2013 and 2014). Never ever get tired of watching this program. Love all the characters with Matt Dillon at the top of the list. Next favorite is “Festus”.

  3. Dave Watson permalink
    September 6, 2015 1:41 PM

    I watch Gunsmoke every day at 1:00 pm on Me network.
    Have you noticed that James Arness always walks with a bit of a limp?
    That’s because being so tall at 6’6″ he was chosen to be the first to wade ashore in the Battle of Anzio,Italy in early 1944…the Germans and Italians were waiting with heavy machine gun fire and Arness suffered a severe leg wound…

    So, we have a mythical hero in Matt Dillan as Marshall of Dodge City…
    And we have a real live hero in James Arness as a World War 11 veteran.

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