“Gunsmoke” star James Arness has been described as a “complex man with simple tastes”; he liked sailing, and poetry, and he loved to laugh. He also had a world-weariness about him that played well into his “Gunsmoke” character, Matt Dillon.
Producers for “Gunsmoke” spoke in a TV Guide interview from Nov. 1961 about Arness and the assets he had in his acting that, apparently, he didn’t even know about.
“Look, there are plenty of good faces in this town,” said Norman Macdonnell, “Gunsmoke” producer since its radio days. “But that good face of Jim’s is also a liability because too many people assume he is all face. They take him for granted as an actor. What they don’t realize is that were Jim to play a man like Dillon, only living in 1961, the critics would say, ‘What power!’”
Director Ted Post also pointed out Arness’ similarities to his character. “Arness had a lot of Matt Dillon’s gutsiness to begin with,” said Post. “But this guy’s long suit as an actor is the compassion that comes out in a poignant look that I call Weltschmerz-world pain. Gary Cooper had it. So did Bogart. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, they all have it. Arness has it and he doesn’t even know it.”
By Weltshmerz, Post was talking about a sense of world-weariness and knowledge, an air of melancholy. James Arness possessed this look, and if nothing else, it helped him win over “Gunsmoke” audiences.
‘Gunsmoke’: Bruce Boxleitner on How James Arness Got Him Another Role on Television
In an interview with A Word On Westerns, Bruce Boxleitner, who worked with Arness on “Gunsmoke” and the “Gunsmoke” film, “One Man’s Justice,” spoke about another Western role that Arness helped him get.
Boxleitner and Arness were both on the show “How the West Was Won,” Arness as the lead, Zeb Macahan, a mountain man; Boxleitner played his son Seth.
In the interview, Boxleitner joked that he doesn’t know how he got that part in “How the West Was Won,” because he did so poorly on his episode of “Gunsmoke.” He explained that, at the time, he was used to theatre performances, instead of film. He said that he looked up to James Arness as a mentor, even though he was “too shy of a guy to [openly mentor.]” Boxleitner said that, “I watched how it was to be a television star on a day-to-day basis.” Watching Arness helped Boxleitner transition from theatre to film acting.
Boxleitner also claimed that he learned a lot from Western sets, because everyone on a Western set is on equal footing. “There are very few divas,” he said. They were all out in the elements together; if one person was cold and wet, so was everyone else.