‘Gunsmoke’: Why James Arness Thought the Show Quickly Became Successful

Getting a head start through another medium provided CBS’s western drama “Gunsmoke” with a springboard for success. Just ask James Arness.

Arness, who played Marshal Matt Dillon for 20 seasons on the show, recalls in an interview with True West Magazine what helped give his show a boost.

“It ran on radio for, I think, three or four seasons before they brought it to television,” Arness said, “so they had the characters all honed down and the storylines.”

Arness said the show would actually use scripts from the radio show and make them work for TV.

“That was one of the main things that got the ball rolling,” he said. “People would see it and realize it was a really high-quality show.”

‘Gunsmoke’ Almost Was Canceled For Another CBS Show, But Survived
It was, indeed, a high-quality show that made its imprint on CBS’s lineup for two decades. There was a point, though, where “Gunsmoke” faced potential cancellation. In the mid-1960s, the show wobbled a bit in the ratings. CBS considered giving it the pink slip and placing a hit sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island,” in its time slot.

Fans of the show reacted quickly, sending letters to CBS pleading for their show not be canceled. It worked. “Gunsmoke” stayed while Gilligan and his friends were tossed aside.

Now you might ask if the show was popular on the radio. It had a lengthy run on the radio. Can you guess who was the radio voice of Matt Dillon? Here are two hints: One, he provided the narrator’s voice for “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons; and two, he played a private eye detective in a 1970s drama.

Arness Won Audition For Role While Receiving Assist From John Wayne
If you haven’t guessed by now, then here’s the answer. William Conrad played Dillon in the radio version of “Gunsmoke.” Yes, he did audition for the TV series but show producers selected Arness instead. Also, Arness got a welcome boost from his good friend, John Wayne. Both of them had appeared in movies together in the past and were friends in the Hollywood scene.

Wayne suggested to “Gunsmoke” producers to take a look at Arness. He didn’t get the job for him, but a suggestion from John Wayne would go a long way to helping Arness get the role.

Ironically, Wayne made a cameo appearance in full cowboy gear as he introduced the TV world to “Gunsmoke” and Arness at the same time. It provided the CBS western with a nice boost for a prosperous future thanks to “The Duke.”

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