‘Gunsmoke’: This Is the ‘Most Common’ Complaint About the Show, According to One Writer

by Caitlin Berard

Watching your favorite actors on the big (or small) screen, it’s easy to imagine them as towering figures. Many Hollywood stars, however, are actually below average height. Top Gun star Tom Cruise, for example, is only 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Though Robert Downey Jr. is larger than life in Iron Man, he’s only 5’8″ in real life.

That said, there are plenty of exceptions. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are two examples, both men towering over their costars at 6’4″.

But one of the tallest actors in Hollywood history is none other than Gunsmoke star James Arness. Standing at 6 feet, 7 inches, the broad-shouldered classic TV icon was an absolute mountain of a man.

This was both a gift and curse for James Arness and Gunsmoke producers. On one hand, James dwarfed his costars, making his character, Marshal Matt Dillon, even more intimidating to the series’ many fictional lawbreakers. On the other, however, the character also dwarfed his trusty steed, Old Buck.

Hilariously, this allegedly lead to a never-ending series of complaints from fans, according to Gunsmoke writer John Meston. Though Old Buck was a perfectly normal-sized horse, James Arness’ massive size made him appear miniature.

“The greatest number of viewer complaints over the years concerned Matt’s horse,” Meston once told TV Guide. “Why did they have such a little horse carrying that huge man? The problem is Arness is so big, he would make even a Percheron look abused.”

Why James Arness Almost Didn’t Star in ‘Gunsmoke’

In its earliest days, Gunsmoke actually wasn’t a TV series at all but a radio show. The radio series ran for an impressive nine years, from 1952 to 1961, drawing dedicated fans every week to hear the latest adventures of Marshal Matt Dillon.

As such, when writers were preparing to make the jump to a live-action series, they knew they needed the perfect actor to put a face to the beloved lawman. Now, rumor has it that John Wayne was the original choice for the Marshal. According to Western legend, in fact, The Duke was seriously considering the role before ultimately turning it down.

Gunsmoke producers, however, denied this as nothing more than a common misconception. “Wayne was a big movie star and wouldn’t have considered TV for a minute,” producer Norman Macdonnell explained. “It was just a publicity story.”

Charles Marquis Warren, the screenwriter and director responsible for the transition to TV found this rumor absurd, especially considering it was John Wayne who convinced Jim Arness to take the role in the first place.

“I hired Jim Arness on the strength of a picture he’d done for me,” he said. “At the last minute, he decided being on the little screen might not lead anywhere and asked his friend Wayne to help him get out of his contract.”

“Wayne not only advised Arness to take the show but volunteered to give it a send-off,” Warren continued. “I never thought for a moment of offering it to Wayne. But to this day even some of the cast go around repeating that story.”