‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Explained Why He Could Never Be a Lawman in Real Life

James Arness only played a lawman on TV. He spent two decades portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. And you can make the case that all that experience in front of the camera gave him some empathy for the folks in real life who wear a badge.

However, Arness was clear that he didn’t want to be a lawman in real life.

Outsider discovered a vintage interview Arness gave. This was back in 1982. That was seven years after Gunsmoke ended its record-breaking run on CBS. After taking a two-year break from acting, Arness was in a new show called McClain’s Law. Unlike Gunsmoke, Arness was in a TV series about present-day life. He played a retired detective who put himself back on active duty when his best friend was killed. He tried to teach the new-age policemen some of his old-school ways.

Arness Sounded Like He Was Back In His Gunsmoke Days

So to hype his new show, Arness talked about his old-school views of law enforcement. Forty years after he gave the interview, it almost sounds like sound bites we hear on cable news or on the presidential campaign trail.

“My character believes simply that the people who are breaking the law should be caught and put in jail — and if they’re real bad, kept there,” Arness said.

“But lawmen now have so many frustrations that this is not always possible. You can’t pull a gun unless such-and-such criteria have been met. Meanwhile, you have five bullets in you. Ridiculous!”

Arness wasn’t finished. “And if you get into trouble, chances are that you will not be backed by your department. You’ll be in it alone. On top of this, there are low pay scales and lack of support amongst the community.

Then Arness made a proposal.

“I think we ought to pull the cops off the streets for 48 hours — make a big announcement — and then see how people like it,” the Gunsmoke star said. “It just might shake up some attitudes a little. With all the red tape, rules and regulations, cops just can’t do their jobs anymore.”

Plus, Arness didn’t think he could survive and thrive with one basic legal rule. “Catching the bad guys and having to let them go, that would kill me.”

Undated television still from CBS series Gunsmoke, with Ken Curtis (L) and James Arness. Shows Arness aiming gun in the episode entitled The Raid – Part I.

This is an understatement — McClain’s Law didn’t have the staying power of Gunsmoke. It lasted one season. But it is the answer to a trivia question. What was the final TV series for Arness? That’s McClain’s Law.

However, it was hardly Arness’ final acting role. He was only 58 when he was on the NBC series. He did five Gunsmoke reunion movies. And he even portrayed Jim Bowie in the TV movie The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory.

Arness died in 2011. He was 88.

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