‘Gunsmoke’: How John Wayne Played Major Role in James Arness Being Cast as Marshal Matt Dillon

by Shelby Scott

John Wayne is one of the most iconic individuals in Hollywood history, so it makes sense that when it comes to the classic television and radio show “Gunsmoke,” he had a key influence in casting James Arness as the lead character, Marshal Matt Dillon. Here’s how.

John Wayne Recommends James Arness for ‘Gunsmoke’

“Gunsmoke” first debuted as a radio show in 1952, before heading to CBS for a long run spanning 1955 to 1975. Set in Dodge City, Kansas, the long-running series followed lead character Marshal Matt Dillon in his efforts to maintain law and order on the American frontier.

Ahead of the Western’s debut, and what would become the most pivotal role of actor James Arness’s career, the program’s executives had insisted on John Wayne fulfilling the dynamic role. However, according to Looper, Wayne lacked the necessary availability to cover the role, instead recommending friend and fellow actor James Arness.

During an interview with SCV, “Gunsmoke” star James Arness said, “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.'”

Marshal Matt Dillon was intended to be a hyper-authoritative character, and Arness perfectly molded to the “Gunsmoke” character. At a height of 6’7, Arness strolled Dodge City without a qualm. For 20 years, Arness held the role of Matt Dillon, despite having been the second choice to John Wayne.

John Wayne Launches ‘Gunsmoke’s Success

James Arness not only saw recommendation for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon from iconic actor John Wayne. The Hollywood cowboy helped in ensuring “Gunsmoke’s” success.

During the same SCV interview, Arness spoke out about John Wayne’s involvement in the “Gunsmoke” premiere. Arness shared, “he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode…It was a wonderful thing.”

Interestingly, however, Arness and his costars were unaware of The Duke’s involvement in the show’s pilot until the television series aired in 1955.

According to MeTV, James Arness, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Milburn Stone received the shock of a lifetime when the first “Gunsmoke” episode aired and John Wayne appeared onscreen to introduce the show.

“I’m John Wayne,” the iconic actor began. “You may have seen me before, or I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time.”

Wayne continued his introduction, but the outlet ensures it was likely his face that set “Gunsmoke’s” long success.

Of the actor’s historic introduction to “Gunsmoke,” James Arness said, “It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There was just never anybody else like him.”

In a later interview, Arness further spoke of his admiration for both television and John Wayne. He shared, “I watch television all the time, mostly PBS, and old movies like ‘The Quiet Man,’ my favorite Wayne movie. It’s marvelous.”

Of John Wayne, he gushed, “I just loved the man and still do.”

Outsider.com