Before James Arness was the brave and big Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke he had a rough go at getting into the Hollywood scene.
The early 1950s in Hollywood were interesting. There were tons of former servicemen that had dutifully served in World War II that wanted jobs in radio or film. Of course, Arness was one of those former GIs. After being honorably discharged following a right leg injury he decided to take a vacation.
After all the fighting on the Italian front, he had some money and figured he had a good couple of weeks before he would have to return to his life back in Minnesota. However, during his time soaking up the sun on the Pacific coast, he was lucky to find some good work. Originally he thought he would be in radio, but that quickly changed.
He was still a young guy and didn’t really know what he was doing in California. His first role in the film The Farmer’s Daughter gave him a solid paycheck of $400 a week. However, once that job ended, it was a rough go at things to find another. He turned to stage work just for fun and the chance would have it that the Gunsmoke star was noticed by a Hollywood agent.
James Arness Was Too Tall for Other Stars
Hollywood is a shallow place at times. Arness admitted that the industry was very kind to him. However, others in the industry weren’t always. After being picked up by M-G-M, he had a couple of good roles. There was one big issue though. He was too tall and too big for other leading men to want to be seen next to him.
Camera tricks are a big part of films. However, at 6-7 and 230lb+ Arness was built like a linebacker. Due to this and other issues, M-G-M dropped the actor.
But, once again, luck would find its way to the future Gunsmoke star. It was none other than the GOAT of Western films, John Wayne that noticed him.
John Wayne Helped ‘Gunsmoke’ Star Become Marshal Dillon
John Wayne saw Arness’ height as a big plus, not a negative. The relationship led to a few roles including his role as The Thing in the film of the same name. It would lead to a lot more than that for Arness.
Arness even said back in the 1950s that he thinks the role of Gunsmoke‘s Marshal Dillon was meant for Wayne. “I have a hunch CBS first offered the part to Mr. Wayne, but that he turned it down and recommended me. He’s the kind of guy who would do a generous thing like that and never let anyone know.”
The Duke was bigger than anyone in the industry. So, it makes sense he wouldn’t be intimidated by Arness. At 6’4″ Wayne was a tall man himself. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in the young actor. Whatever his thinking was, we sure are grateful James Arness was picked at Marshal Dillon.