If Gunsmoke star James Arness had his way, he would never have towered over Dodge City as Marshal Matt Dillon.
That seems inconceivable now, given that Arness and Gunsmoke stayed on the air for two decades. It was the longest-running show on television until Law & Order tied it, then spinoff Law & Order: SVU broke the record. But chances are, Gunsmoke wouldn’t have lasted that long if someone besides Arness had worn the badge.
So let’s set the scene and why Arness initially didn’t want the Gunsmoke job. Arness received an honorable discharge from the Army in World War II, so he returned to his home in Minneapolis, looking for another career. Arness worked in radio in his hometown. Then a buddy talked him into heading west.
“I was cruising along and enjoying being back home and in civilian life,” Arness told True West magazine in 2001. “A friend of mine who had been in the Navy out here in Southern California had just gotten home, and he called me up and we met and had a few drinks and he said, ‘Boy, we ought be out there right now, it’s a great place.’ “
The friend knew a guy who’d worked as an extra in movies. When they got to California, Arness and his friend started finding work on the big screen.
“We just kind of drifted in it,” Arness said. “I did wind up going to a little acting school and picked up on that, and things just sort of opened up there for a while.”
Then, Arness got to work with John Wayne on four movies. His future seemed set. He’d work in movies. But Wayne pushed him towards Gunsmoke after he heard about a casting call.
Arness recalled: “Well, I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along. I had been in about four pictures for his company with him. When the Gunsmoke offer came in, he said, “I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.” So he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”
But Arness still wasn’t sure about heading to TV, which was a very new medium back then. In interviews in 1982, Arness talked about his hesitancy towards Gunsmoke.
“Twenty years ago, television was just not the place to be,” Arness said. “I was trying, just like anybody else, to get into the movies. I was actually doing quite well, making a good living, but nobody knew me. Then I started Gunsmoke and the whole picture changed.”
Arness died in 2011 at age 88. After 20 years, plus five Gunsmoke reunion movies, he definitely made the right decision.