Gunsmoke actor James Arness revealed that he questioned whether or not he should stay on the show in spite of its popularity.
“We’ve all probably had our secret doubts about going on with it,” said Arness in a 1962 interview. “Maybe there isn’t much more I can do with the role after all this time. But so what? The dough’s still coming in, and I could keep on playing Matt Dillon forever.”
Gunsmoke ran from 1955 to 1975. The series starred Arness alongside Dennis Weaver, Milburn Stone, Burt Reynolds, and Amanda Blake. Its first eleven years were broadcast in black and white, while it moved to color from 1966 onward. Additionally, it remained in the top 20 U.S. shows from seasons two to nine.
Interestingly, Gunsmoke also used to hold several records for longevity. In the U.S., it held the record for most scripted episodes until 2018, when it was surpassed by The Simpsons. Additionally, it once held the records for longest-running scripted live-action series and longest-running television character, but both of those are now held by Law & Order: SVU. Needless to say, Arness made the right call to stick with the successful show.
“When Dennis left the show this past season to seek out greener pastures, I told him he’d be back,” Arness continued. “And he did return. But for a while, it was kind of tough trying to figure out what would happen to the show with him gone. Public opinion called him back. We were swamped with letters asking for him. So when his own TV show idea fell through he came back. I was mighty happy to see him.”
Gunsmoke star Discusses Acting Career Outside of Show
In the same interview, Arness opened up about his career outside of Gunsmoke. One might expect the star of the most popular show at that time to make the jump to the big screen.
“The problem that most TV actors like myself have is that we’re usually offered the small-type movies, where they can exploit our name and shoot it on a small financial budget,” said Arness. “In my case, pictures like that simply want to take advantage of the Matt Dillon reputation, which is exactly what I don’t want. I want major pictures – and I don’t care if it’s not the leading role.”
At the time, there was a divide between movie stars and television stars. Some believed that television was a lower form of acting, and so “cashing in” was one of the only ways for a television actor to be in a film. Arness valued himself more than that.
“I don’t believe in the axiom that people won’t pay to see in a theatre what they can see at home on TV for free,” he explained. “That theory isn’t proven. Why, I’ve had people come and pay six or six-and-a-half dollars to see me for 10 minutes at a rodeo. And they didn’t come just once, either, but packed the places night after night. If people pay to see you in one thing, they’ll pay to see you in something else. But it has to be good. Once they come to know and like you, you’d darn well better be good if they have to pay.”
Perhaps, John Wayne had the right idea about whether or not Arness had it in him to succeed in Hollywood. The Duke once said: “Try and make your mark in TV, 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.”