‘Gunsmoke’: One Future ‘Perry Mason’ Star Nearly Played James Arness’ Role

James Arness’ career-defining role must undoubtedly be when he starred as Dodge City’s Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.” Yet, before Arness booked the gig, other up-and-coming stars were hoping to get their chance to wear the signature badge and cowboy hat.

As it turns out, before showrunners pegged Arness for the part, actors such as John Wayne and future “Perry Mason” star Raymond Barr were considered for the role. It actually makes sense why the showrunners looked into booked Barr for the role. In the 1950s, Burr was the star of CBS Radio’s Fort Laramie, an Western drama produced, written, and directed by the creators of “Gunsmoke.”

On the radio show, he played the role of Lee Quince, a captain of the cavalry. The series was set in a post-Civil War military post where disease, boredom, and uncharted terrain are the greatest enemies of “ordinary men who lived in extraordinary times.”

The half-hour radio show aired Sundays until 1956. At the time, Burr told a reporter that he had received 1,500 fan letters after the first broadcasts. He even continued to receive letters praising the show.

Gunsmoke’s network, CBS, pegs Raymond Burr for classic crime drama

Despite rumors that he might star in the classic TV western, all that changed in August of 1956. At that time, CBS, the same network that produced “Gunsmoke,” announced that Burr would star in the television series “Perry Mason.” Although the network wanted Burr to continue work on Fort Laramie, the show required an extensive commitment. As a result, the radio show ultimately ended.

Although it didn’t have the lasting power as the classic western, it left its mark on the classic TV. “Perry Mason” ran from 1957 to 1966 and also turned Burr into a household name. By the early 1960s, the show had 30 million viewers every Saturday night. Burr also received 3,000 fan letters a week, a steep jump from the fan letters he received from the radio show. 

Prior, he won three consecutive Emmy Award nominations. He took home his own in 1959 and 1961 for his performance in the crime drama. The series has since been rerun in syndication and released on DVD between 2006 and 2013. 

In addition, it’s often said that Burr’s character never lost a case. Although die-hard fans will point out he lost two murder cases in the early episodes of the series.

As for “Gunsmoke,” it was a massive success for CBS and Arness. It aired for 20 years, finally coming to an end in 1975. It held the record for the most episodes produced for a primetime, scripted series for years. However, “The Simpsons” would eventually beat their record in 2018. 

Arness played Dillion for five decades. He is also tied with Kelsey Grammer as Frasier for having played a single character across 20 consecutive seasons of TV. 

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