James Arness played the iconic Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. He was a rugged lawman of few words who wouldn’t hesitate to let his hands or his long-barreled .45 do the talking for him. When many western fans think about the grit of the American west, Marshall Dillon comes instantly to mind.
However, the stuntman who made the marshal’s most dangerous moments possible might have been more rugged than even Matt Dillon.
That Stuntman’s name was Ben Bates. He joined Gunsmoke for the final four seasons and helped James Arness finish the series in style. Bates’ road to Dodge City is worthy of its own silver-screen showing.
The Story of the Gunsmoke Stuntman
Ben Bates was a real cowboy before he ever stepped foot on the Gunsmoke set. Bates hailed from Texas and learned to ride growing up. In 1967, he was competing in the Chicago rodeo when an advertising exec spotted him. That suit knew that Bates would be perfect for his ad campaign.
So, Bates went from competing in the rodeo to being the new Marlboro Man, according to MeTV. There were several men to fill that role. Bates appeared in print as well as television ads as the iconic smoking cowboy throughout the late 60s.
The Marlboro Man is seen as one of the most successful ad campaigns in history. When it started, filter cigarettes were seen as feminine. So, the Philip Morris Company started using rugged characters to advertise them to men. What’s more rugged and manly than a cowboy riding the range? Nothing, that’s what. With this role in his shirt pocket, Bates was unwittingly one step closer to backing up James Arness on Gunsmoke.
Ben Bates joined Gunsmoke in 1972. For the most part, he was James Arness’ stuntman. He made sure that Mat Dillion could take his regular amount of punishment while keeping Arness safe. However, Bates did make one on-screen appearance as an actor.
He appeared as a Matt Dillon look-alike in the eighth episode of the 20th season of the show. The episode was titled, “The Fourth Victim.”
Ben Bates wasn’t finished with Gunsmoke when the series ended. He came back for all of the reunion films to be Arness’ stunt double.
When the series ended, James Arness gifted Ben Bates Mat Dillon’s .45. Arness told the stuntman, “You mean more to me than putting this into a museum somewhere.”
Ben Bates passed away in October of 2017.