‘Gunsmoke’ Actor James Arness Would Be 98 Today: Relive the Marshal Matt Dillon Actor’s Best Moments

by John Jamison

James Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for 20 years. He appeared in a mind-blowing 635 episodes on the show and built an entire acting career outside of his Matt Dillon character, as well. The late Western star would have turned 98 years old today. In honor of James Arness’ birthday, let’s look back at some of the major moments throughout his career.

The 6’7″ actor was so tall that it could be hard to fit him in a frame. But his stature made him a perfect fit for tough, imposing roles. Look no further than his appearance in the 1951 sci-fi film “The Thing from Another World.” He played the title character, The Thing. And he did a pretty terrifying job of it, too.

A few years later, Arness landed his iconic role of Marshal Matt Dillon on the classic CBS Western “Gunsmoke.” But before the first episode aired, Arness went on an episode of “The Johnny Carson Show” to do some promotional work.

The 1955 segment of the iconic talk show saw Carson challenge the towering James Arness to outdraw himself in a mirror. He had to demonstrate the ability of Marshal Matt Dillon to all of the would-be viewers out there, of course. In a fun moment with some clever prop and camera work, Arness successfully outdrew and took care of his counterpart in the mirror.

The ‘Gunsmoke’ Star Led a Life To Be Proud of

James Arness delighted fans many times over as Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke.” But it’d be a travesty reducing his impact on society to a few roles he played in the movies and on TV.

The man was a decorated war hero. He stared death in the face and beat it back as he stormed the beach at Anzio during World War II. And he paid a steep price for his bravery, with his leg shattered by a round from a German machine gun. As a result of his sacrifice, he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Arness played an American hero on TV, but only after he became one in reality.

James Arness passed away to natural causes in 2011 at his home in Brentwood, California. He led a long, full life, and yet any death at all is one that came too soon. He wrote a letter before he passed to be published posthumously on his website. What follows is only an excerpt from the farewell note, but is touching nonetheless.

“I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends. I wanted to take this time to thank all of you for the many years of being a fan of GunsmokeThe ThingHow the West Was Won and all the other fun projects I was lucky enough to have been allowed to be a part of.”

Happy birthday, Jim. And rest easy.