Gunsmoke actor James Arness once opened up about the insane success of his role as Marshall Matt Dillon on the western.
“You never know in this business,” said Arness in a 2001 interview. “There’s a lot of luck, providence, mixed into every successful career.” According to the actor, his luck was made by a having a friend in high places: John Wayne.
“Well, I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along,” Arness explained. “I had been in about four pictures for his company with him. When the Gunsmoke offer came in, he said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.’ So he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”
Arness went on to star on Gunsmoke for an outstanding twenty years, from 1955 to 1975. At the time, he held the record for longest running primetime character in American television. The record was later broken first by Richard Belzer as John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order: SVU. Subsequently, Mariska Hargitay claimed the title for playing Olivia Benson, also on SVU.
“The bottom line is I was fortunate to get this role and be in a project that had such quality material,” the Gunsmoke star said. “It was mostly a question, especially in the early going, of the role carrying me along.”
“It really has been a great career, a great life,” Arness concluded. His long career also saw him star in How the West Was Won and McClain’s Law. Additionally, he reprised his role as Matt Dillon five times between 1989 and 1994 for several television films.
James Arness Reflected on Not Wanting to Star on Gunsmoke
According to Arness, acting was never part of the plan. Rather it was something he fell into after returning home from serving in World War II.
“I was cruising along and enjoying being back home and in civilian life,” Arness explained. “A friend of mine who had been in the Navy out here in Southern California had just gotten home, and he called me up and we met and had a few drinks and he said, ‘Boy, we ought be out there right now, it’s a great place.’”
Then, through a friend he knew, Arness found work as a film extra.
“We just kind of drifted in it,” Arness said. “I did wind up going to a little acting school and picked up on that, and things just sort of opened up there for a while.” The actor got lucky, and he signed to work with Wayne.
He then explained that his time working with Duke made him hesitant to move to television. It ended up being the role that defined his career–for the better.
“Twenty years ago, television was just not the place to be,” Arness previously said in a 1982 interview. “I was trying, just like anybody else, to get into the movies. I was actually doing quite well, making a good living, but nobody knew me. Then I started Gunsmoke and the whole picture changed.”