‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Opened Up About Matt Dillon Putting Personal Feelings on Hold

by Anna Dunn
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Gunsmoke star James Arness once opened up about Matt Dillon putting his personal feelings on hold in a 1979 TV Guide Interview. Arness played the gunslinging cowboy on the Western for decades. Arness even held the record for the longest time an actor has played a character on a series. That record has only been broken by Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU.

In the interview, Arness discussed the reason why he felt Matt Dillon often acted with a certain emotional restraint.

“Zeb Macahan came from an era when men were the law unto themselves. He was a free spirit,
made his own rules. He was used to taking everything over and not consulting anybody. Except that after the Civil War-the stage we’ve got him at now-it’s more civilized times and he’s running into a little trouble,” Arness said.

But Matt Dillon was very different from that. His relationship with the law and his career really shaped how he approached the world. And it’s part of the reason Gunsmoke was so compelling. Arness, who was passionate about the character, explained it well.

“Matt Dillon was the opposite-a guy who not only had to see that the laws were carried out, but live by them himself. He had to do the right thing. As a consequence, he always had to hold his own personal feelings or desires in restraint,” he said.

Apparently, Arness was a bit of a reserved type himself. He wasn’t very sociable for an actor, being a bit more introverted. But he loved his role as Matt Dillon. And co-star Amanda Blake said he was very protective of Matt Dillon’s image.

One ‘Gunsmoke’ Producer Talked about How Arness Liked a Low Profile

Arness liked acting, but that doesn’t mean he liked the fame and attention that came with it. The Gunsmoke star wasn’t fond of the fuss that actors tend to get once they make it big.

“[James Arness] has never held court as many actors do,” Gunsmoke producer Norman Macdonnell explained in a 1966 interview. “There has never been an admiring throng around Jim (James Arness). He’d much rather go to his dressing room and lie down or talk to one of the guys. There is no exhibitionistic thing about Jim. All he wants is to do the show and get away.”

Arness was far from the typical showbusiness type. And in the early years of the show, production struggled with that a bit. He didn’t have a lot of the professional training that other actors did. But being a bit rough around the edges is kind of what also made him perfect to play Matt Dillon, and he’d protect the legacy of that character for decades after Gunsmoke ended.