For 20 years, James Arness entertained audiences on “Gunsmoke” as Matt Dillon. But in real life, the actor was also a decorated war hero.
Before he was ever one of the small screen’s most iconic cowboys, Arness was a soldier in the U.S. Army. The actor was one of many drafted into the military back during World War II. And like many soldiers of that time period, Arness saw combat. He was part of the 1944 invasion of Anzio, Italy.
Many consider Anzio to be one of the deadliest battles during WWII. At that time, Arness hadn’t even turned 21. But the young Army Private joined thousands of others in the assault. Unfortunately for Arness, he wouldn’t escape the conflict unscathed.
According to Cheatsheet, the actor was injured during the assault. A bullet from German machine-gun fire shattered Arness’s right leg. It took the better part of a year in the hospital for the actor to recover. Arness had to have multiple surgeries. As a result of his bravery during the assault, the Army gave Arness both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
After being discharged from the army, Arness decided to become an actor. He moved to California where producers cast him on the popular show “Gunsmoke.”
‘Gunsmoke’ Casts James Arness
By that point, “Gunsmoke” had started its life as a successful radio broadcast. Originating in the early 1950s, it was the perfect property to transition over from radio to film. For the radio broadcasts, William Conrad filled in as the voice of Matt Dillon. But Conrad didn’t look the part for what producers thought the marshal should look like. For one, the voice actor was overweight. So, the producers wanted someone else to fill the role.
The producers initially envisioned John Wayne as the iconic marshal. But Wayne starred in big-budget westerns on the silver screen, and he would have a big-budget price tag as well. Instead, they turned their attention to a John Wayne type for the role. And Arness checked all those brackets. For one, Wayne and Arness had been friends in real life, and the iconic cowboy gave Arness his seal of approval.
In fact, he even introduced the show urging audiences that Arness was the real deal. Because Arness was in fact, the real deal.