‘Gunsmoke’: How Much Did James Arness Make for Playing Marshal Matt Dillon?

by Emily Morgan
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During the 1950s, “Gunsmoke” dominated television ratings. Every night, families gathered in living rooms to watch the events unfold in Dodge City. Out of all the characters, no one was beloved as Dodge City’s Marshal, played by the late James Arness.

However, the high ratings of “Gunsmoke” came with a high price tag to have Arness on the show. He earned $1,200 an episode, but later, when the show won Emmys and continued to be a hit with critics and fans, he renegotiated his contract. As a result, he later got $20,000 an episode. 

After the show started on airwaves, CBS decided to bring the show to life on television. Once the news was out that CBS was looking for the perfect Marshal, everyone was hoping to book the part. Luckily they found the ideal man for the role: James Arness. 

Fellow Western Star Coaxed Arness To Audition For ‘Gunsmoke’

There’s no doubt that Arness contributed to “Gunsmoke” remaining as one of the most popular and longest-running shows in television history. Before becoming a household name, Arness booked small parts in movies in the late 1940s. Later, his appearance on The Lone Ranger helped him land more roles on westerns.

Before CBS began casting for “Gunsmoke,” Arness was filming the drama “Big Jim McLain” in the Bahamas. Once he heard about the show, he decided to audition.” However, in an interview with the Archive of American Television, Arness revealed that director Edward Ludwig persuaded him not to audition. “I don’t know. You’re doing pretty well right now in the movies, he told Arness. “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.”

When the producers asked Arness to audition, he decided to take the advice of the director. “I said, thank you very much but I think I’m going to pass.” However, producers were desperate to get Arness, so desperate that they recruited The Duke himself. According to Arness, Wayne told him, “Look, you’d be crazy not to take this thing. It’ll be just like it was with me when I was a young actor.” Wayne’s advice persuaded him enough to change his mind, and he was sold on becoming Matt Dillon. According to Arness, “He really talked turkey to me.”

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