‘Gunsmoke’: How Much Did James Arness Make Per Episode on the Show?

by Chris Haney
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Fans of the classic western television show Gunsmoke know actor James Arness well. His memorable role as Marshal Matt Dillon on the CBS series is one of the first characters who come to mind when thinking of the hit show. Yet have you ever wondered how much the actor made per episode during his career? If so, we’ve got you covered.

Sadly, the talented actor passed away in 2011 at age 88. For decades he made a name for himself in Hollywood because of his acting prowess. That led to a multi-million dollar career over years in the entertainment business. At the time of his passing, Arness was worth $8 million because of his work on TV and on the big screen.

Among multiple movie appearances, Marshal Dillon from Gunsmoke is one of his most notable roles. The famous TV character helped solidify Arness’ Hollywood career over the two decades he starred in the show. Actors didn’t make what they do today from 1955 to 1975 when the show aired. But Arness still took home a healthy salary for the times.

During the early years of the series, Arness made $1,200 each episode filmed. As the seasons went on, and the show became more popular, the actor renegotiated his contract. By this time, Gunsmoke had won numerous awards, and Arness’ new contract reflected that. He went on to make $20,000 per episode, which is around $150,000 by today’s standards.

Arness made further appearances for the show in a series of made-for-TV movies, including 1987’s Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. By the time he retired, Arness had accumulated a sizable fortune from his acting career.

‘Gunsmoke’ Actor Earned Role Because of John Wayne’s Recommendation

While Gunsmoke fans likely didn’t know James Arness’ salary on the show, they might not know how he got the part as well. For 20 years, audiences were treated to 635 episodes of the hit western TV series. But showrunners originally wanted Hollywood western legend John Wayne to be Marshal Dillon.

Yet Wayne’s schedule and prolific movie career simply wouldn’t allow it. As Gunsmoke hit television screens across the nation in 1955, Wayne was in the middle of a fine run of movies. Rio Bravo, The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceTrue Grit and many more all came out while Gunsmoke was on TV. Therefore Wayne actually suggested to showrunners that they give Arness a shot at the starring role in his place.

“Well, I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along,” Arness recalled. “I had been in about four pictures for his company with him. When the Gunsmoke offer came in, he 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. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”

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