James Arness made a career as the swaggering and tough, but fair, Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. He is brave, and tall, and is always ready to take on the bad guys.
But, for much of his life, Arness felt subconscious about his towering height. A height which topped off at around six feet, seven inches. This led the longtime actor to form unique friendships as a teenager. Friendships that led to some hilarious moments of adventure…even hopping a few freight trains from time to time!
According to a write-up on the classic television star, the unique height of James Arness was something that created an “extreme sensitivity.” A sensitivity that ran strong in Arness’s makeup.
This meant that as a young man, Gunsmoke’s James Arness “towered over most of his classmates,” according to the November 1961 write-up. Like most teens, however, Arness still had his friend group which consisted of himself and two best friends.
A close-knit tribe that the article describes as one that operated as an “outgroup,” James Arness and his buddies liked to create some imagined unique and adventurous scenarios in which they would retreat during their free time. This, the Gunsmoke actor explains, is where the freight hopping comes in.
“We’d go on the bum,” James Arness recalls in the article. “We weren’t bad kids, understand,” the Gunsmoke actor continues explaining that for fun, the group would go “hopping freights around the Middle West.”
“We came from nice homes,” he notes. Adding that their upbringing had nothing to do with these wayward decisions. “We weren’t delinquents. We just had itchy feet.”
‘Gunsmoke’ Star Has Talents Seen in Major Hollywood Stars
Over the years, James Arness has been described as being a “complex man with simple tastes.” According to Gunsmoke producers, one of his greatest assets could have also been a major liability for the actor.
“Look, there are plenty of good faces in this town,” notes Gunsmoke producer Norman Macdonnell. “But that good face of Jim’s is also a liability because too many people assume he is all face.”
“They take him for granted as an actor,” he adds. “What they don’t realize is that were Jim to play a man like Dillon, only living in 1961, the critics would say, ‘What power!’”
This, notes Gunsmoke director Ted Post, is what brought James Arness to the level of some of Hollywood’s most prolific players.
“This guy’s long suit as an actor is the compassion that comes out in a poignant look that I call Weltschmerz-world pain,” Post says of the star.
“Gary Cooper had it,” the director continues.
“So did Bogart. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, they all have it,” Post adds. “Arness has it and he doesn’t even know it.”