The iconic classic TV western Gunsmoke hosted a long list of actors during its twenty-year run. But only one star went the long haul and appeared in all 635 episodes.
There were a few people who had impressive stretches on the show. For example, Kitty actress Amanda Blake starred in 509 episodes. And Doc’s Milburn Stone lasted for 605 episodes. He was also a major character through all 20 seasons.
But as you may have guessed, the one actor who never once missed a show was the tall, dark, and handsome cowboy, James Arness.
Arness played the lead character, Matt Dillon, the U.S. Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, who successfully ran every bandit, outlaw, and con out of his late 1800s town. And interestingly, the actor joined the cast thanks to the biggest Western star to ever walk the earth, John Wayne.
John Wayne Almost Played Matt Dillon
When the series was in the works, the executive producers were determined to cast The Duke as Dillon. But unsurprisingly, he didn’t have the availability to commit to every episode of Gunsmoke. So he told them that they should call up his good friend, Arness.
“When the Gunsmoke offer came in, [Wayne] said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Arness once told SCV, according to Looper. “But I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.’”
And because James Arness was a 6’7″ brooding chap who fit the Dillon mold to a T, the producers immediately took Wayne’s word and offered him the role. And the recommendation obviously worked out well for everyone.
But John Wayne didn’t stop there, he also offered to help gander an audience for the series before it premiered.
“He very graciously offered to introduce the first episode…It was a wonderful thing,” Arness continued.
But Wayne kept the introduction a secret, according to MeTV. When the stars of the show turned on the TV to watch the pilot, they were pleasantly shocked to see the Duke onscreen.
“I’m John Wayne,” he said before the episode began. “You may have seen me before, or I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time.”
After Appearing on Every Episode of ‘Gunsmoke,’ James Arness Returned to Dodge City for Five Movies
After the show concluded in 1975, Arness wasn’t done defending Dodge City. During the 80s and 90s, the actor went on to film five made for TV Gunsmoke movies.
But one of the reasons he stuck around for the extra installments is that he didn’t believe the network gave the series a fair ending. Instead, it abruptly canceled the series citing bad ratings.
“We didn’t do a final [Gunsmoke] wrap-up show,” Arness told the Amarillo Globe-News, per Gunsmoke Net. “We finished the 20th year. And we all expected to go on for another season, or two or three. The [network] never told anybody they were thinking of canceling.”