‘Gunsmoke’ Star Bruce Boxleitner Explained How James Arness Helped Him Land Role on Another Project

by Victoria Santiago

In an interview with A Word on Westerns, Bruce Boxleitner recounted his days on Gunsmoke and How The West Was Won. The last season of Gunsmoke left him questioning why he was on the set of How The West Was Won. Turns out, James Arness helped him land his role on the iconic Western film. Boxleitner thought he was still doing theater acting during the audition and was amazed when he got the part.

Boxleitner looked up to Arness as a mentor. Even though Arness was too shy to purposefully act like one, he led by example, though, and Boxleitner learned a lot from him. He learned how to be a TV star from watching Arness. Part of what helped was that the shows they filmed together were mostly outside. During his interview, Boxleitner said that was the good thing about Westerns. They were all filmed outside, so there weren’t any divas in the cast.

That’s also what made Arness such a good mentor. As Boxleitner put it, everyone in the cast “shared” the same experience. If it was cold and wet outside, then everyone was cold and wet. If it was scorching hot outside, then everyone was sweaty. He also mentioned that having similar casts in both helped him find his footing. Boxleitner casually said that the cast of How The West Was Won was probably so similar to Gunsmoke on purpose. Everyone already knew they worked together well, and they were comfortable with each other. He went on to say that for a while, How The West Was Won was almost considered to be an extension of Gunsmoke.

‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Was Told He Wouldn’t Make It in Movies

Yes, it’s true. That might be taking constructive criticism a little too far. What makes it worse is who told him: John Wayne. James Arness actually got his start acting in movies. When he first went to Hollywood, he got a good-paying role in a movie. In fact, he had never made as much money before in his life. He took the money and lived in Mexico on the beach for a while. When the money ran out and he came back to Hollywood, he had a harder time finding jobs. Eventually, he got back on his feet in movies, which is where he met the legendary John Wayne.

John Wayne was actually offered the position on Gunsmoke first. He turned it down, obviously, but he did something else, too. He offered up James Arness for the role. When confronting Arness about switching from movies to TV, John Wayne told him he would never make it. “Try and make your mark in TV, Jim, because you’re not going to make it in movies. You’re too tall. Actors like me and Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper don’t want you towering over us,” Wayne famously said. We have John Wayne to thank for 20 thrilling seasons of Gunsmoke, and for James Arness’ iconic character in the show.

Oh, and if you were wondering how tall he had to be for John Wayne to feel threatened: Arness was six foot seven inches tall.