As one of the longest-running shows to ever be on TV, the actors involved in “Gunsmoke” had quite the long-term commitment.
The Western television series was on for a total of 20 seasons. Some of the characters on the show would come and go. However, James Arness, who played Marshal Matt Dillon, continued to lead the show to success for all 20 years.
For a while, Arness had a record for the longest consecutive time spent playing the same character. However, Olivia Benson currently on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” has been portraying her character for over 21 years to date.
It’s no easy task to spend 20 years playing the same role. At that point, the actor is essentially dedicating the majority of their career to that one project. So, what made James Arness not willing to let go of Marshal Matt Dillon and “Gunsmoke?”
James Arness Not Leaving ‘Gunsmoke’
Although he did spend 20 years protecting Dodge City, Arness first had roles in “The Farmer’s Daughter,” “The Thing,” and “Them!.” He had also starred alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time like Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and John Wayne.
In an interview with True West Magazine from many years ago, Arness was asked why he never left the series and pursued a film career instead. He said it was not something he had ever really considered doing.
“An awful lot of TV actors tried that and didn’t do too well. Just a few of them made the transition—Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen—but not too many made it,” Arness said.
At the time, the gap between movies and TV was an expansive one. Film actors stayed on the big screen, while TV actors occupied viewer’s smaller screens every week at home. This gap has started to close in recent years. Major film actors, directors, and writers have started to delve into the TV world. TV actually gives the opportunity for longer, more in-depth storytelling and character development.
Arness as Matt Dillon
For James Arness, he never really saw the point in letting go of something good to take a risk in different projects. He has also said he really enjoyed portraying Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for all those years.
“Gee, as far as playing him, it was wonderful. It took me a little while to get into the groove. When we first started, I had played a number of different parts in pictures and everything but never had to carry that much responsibility. In most of those early episodes, I was in almost every scene. I was suddenly faced with being in 15 pages a day and having to learn all this dialogue … But after a couple of years of that, I began to feel more comfortable, and really from that time on, it just sort of played itself. I felt I had gotten into the character, and it was just really fun from that point on,” Arness said.
After the sudden cancelation of “Gunsmoke,” Arness had another major role in “How the West Was Won.” This was also a Western series where he played Zeb Macahan.
He would again take on his legendary role as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge.” It was one of many “Gunsmoke” TV movies that was made during the 1990s. His role as Matt Dillon is his career-defining role.
Arness passed away in June 2011 when he was 88.