Gunsmoke ran for twenty years and was the longest-running primetime drama for decades. Today, it stands as one of the best westerns to ever hit the small screen. The center of the show’s greatness, though, was its star, James Arness. Arness played the tough cowboy-turned lawman Matt Dillon. Like the series, Marshal Dillon is an iconic part of American culture.
Often, actors who play characters for a long time will begin to mesh with their on-screen persona. Small elements of the character will make their way into the actor’s personality. At the same time, the actor gives some of their personality to the character they play. James Arness and Matt Dillon were no different. Within a few years, Arness and Dillon started to influence one another.
In 1961, TV Guide ran a two-part story on James Arness. They discussed his career as well as Gunsmoke as a whole. Additionally, they collected quotes from those who knew and worked with Arness. Director Ted Post was among those people.
The Similarities Between James Arness and Matt Dillon
In 1961, Gunsmoke was in its sixth year. By that time, Ted Post had directed “50-odd” episodes of the show. As a result, he worked directly with James Arness. More importantly, he saw where Arness and Dillon met.
According to Post, James Arness came to the Gunsmoke set with a little of Marshall Matt Dillon inside him. “Arness had a lot of Matt Dillon’s gutsiness, to begin with,” he told TV Guide. However, that wasn’t the most important similarity. Post continued, saying, “This guy’s long-suit as an actor is the compassion that comes out in a poignant look that I call Weltschmerz-world pain. Gary Cooper had it. So did Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, they all have it. Arness has it and doesn’t even know it.”
Weltschmerz is a German literary concept. Roughly translated, it means world-weary or to carry the world’s pain on one’s shoulders. You can see that in James Arness’ portrayal of Matt Dillon. It comes out in the quiet moments and truly elevates the character.
Not Everyone Agreed with Post
TV Guide wanted their story on James Arness to be fair. So, they talked to several people about the actor and how he related to the character. One interviewee who, apparently, wanted to remain anonymous but claimed to be a former associate of Arness’ claimed that the actor’s portrayal of Dillon was ironic.
“Here’s the big irony,” began the unnamed source. “As Matt Dillon, this man is a father image, or maybe a big brother image to the Nation. But, emotionally, in his approach to problems and to people, he is pathetically immature. The real Arness has a very low opinion of himself which is the sign of a guy forever running scared.”
Arness played Matt Dillon for 20 years while also appearing in other roles. It seems like the only thing Arness was scared of was not working.