‘Gunsmoke’: Why John Wayne Never Played a Character on the Classic Western

by Taylor Cunningham
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Before Gunsmoke became a classic TV legend, the series creator pegged John Wayne for the lead role. But the Hollywood icon knew there was someone else who was more suited for the part.

By the time the Western debuted in 1955, Wayne was an A-lister with an Oscar nod to boot. So going from the silver screen to the small screen wasn’t something he would consider. When he was offered the part, he politely declined. And eventually, James Arness landed the role of U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon.

Interestingly, it was John Wayne who suggested that Arness get the spot. The two were good friends for most of their lives. And when the series was casting, the Duke thought that Arness would be a perfect fit. So he went out of his way to make sure it happened.

But Wayne didn’t stop there. To ensure that Gunsmoke got off to a good start, he offered to record an opener to the pilot episode. And since he was one of the biggest names in film, millions of fans tuned in.

“Good evening, My name’s Wayne,” he said before talking about his own career.

As he continued, he admitted that he wasn’t a part of the series, and kindly added that he wished he was. Then, he went on to praise his friend and introduce him to the world.

“When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, I know there was only one man to play in it, James Arness. He’s a young fella and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him, and I predict that he’ll be a big star. So, you might as well get used to him like you’ve had to get used to me.”

‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Was Always Thankful For John Wayne’s Friendship

And John Wayne was right—James Arness did go on to be a “big star.” Over the course of 20 years, he played in 635 Gunsmoke episodes. Then, he went on to appear as Dillon in five subsequent made-for-TV movies. He also earned three Emmy nominations along the way.

The actor never stopped thanking Wayne for helping him make a career in Westerns either. During a 2006 interview, Arness shared the tale of how John Wayne got him the gig.

“I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along,” he explained. “When the Gunsmoke offer came in, [Wayne] 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.”

“There just was never anybody like him,” he added.

Outsider.com