Once an actor is cast in a landmark role, it can be hard to see them in other roles or see others in their role. When the show “Gunsmoke” was being adapted from radio to TV, each character was carefully selected. Possibly most tediously and exhaustingly selected was the actor who would eventually play Marshal Matt Dillon.
Selecting Marshal Matt Dillon for ‘Gunsmoke’
According to IMDb, there were 26 different actors that auditioned for the lead role on the show. The show’s director and producer, Charles Marquis Warren, was exceptionally picky on who the leading man should be. In fact, they were picky on everything dealing with the actors.
For example, he said William Conrad, who played the radio version of Matt Dillon, just didn’t look the part. When it came to Raymond Burr, he got even more specific by saying “When he stood up, his chair stood up with him.”
Burr would go on to be successful in movies like “Rear Window,” “Ironside,” “Godzilla,” and “The Brass Legend.”
John Pickard appeared in 12 different episodes of “Gunsmoke.” He missed out after doing a poor job in a love scene with Miss Kitty. While he wasn’t the lead in “Gunsmoke,” Pickard was in several other television westerns. This includes “Boots and Saddles,” “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” “Tales of the Texas Rangers,” and “The Rifleman.”
Eventually, the “Gunsmoke” team landed on James Arness. In many ways, he was the television version of John Wayne. He had similar looks and mannerisms to The Duke. It was even Wayne who helped persuade Arness to take the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.
It was no short-term role either. He went on to play the character for 20 years on the CBS series. There were also five made-for-television movies. After “Gunsmoke,” he appeared in “How the West Was Won,” which is a cult-classic in many European countries especially.
Why Did He Almost Pass on the Role?
“Gunsmoke” helped launch Arness and his other co-stars into worldwide celebrities on one of the most popular American sitcoms ever.
So why would Arness almost pass on that?
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Arness said that Edward Ludwig told him it would kill his career. Ludwig was the director of the 1952 movie “Big Jim McLain.” It starred both John Wayne and James Arness. Ludwig gave him advice about what switching between movies and TV would do to his career.
“I don’t know. You’re doing pretty well right now in the movies. You’re at a point where if you got just the right break in a movie, you might really step up. If you get stuck in a television series, like a Western thing, and it goes a couple of seasons and then dies … You’ll be in bad trouble in the movies. You’ll be used goods,” Arness said.
He got the call to audition while he was still working on the Ludwig movie and actually turned down the original audition. Eventually, the director called John Wayne who convinced Arness that TV acting would help him “learn your craft.”