James Arness from “Gunsmoke” had absolutely mastered the art of prerecorded television.
In fact, he has one of the longest consecutive runs playing the same character. For 20 years Arness was protecting civilians as Marshal Matt Dillon.
However, in a 2002 interview with Television Academy, Arness opened up about some of his experiences with live television. While he only had a couple of experiences, one role really stripped him down as an actor. It did so quite literally.
“Somewhere back in there I did a live show … they put me on playing William Tell. I think that was my first experience with live television. It was interesting because I was in practically every scene … I was playing a scene with about three pages of dialogue and they were cutting me at the waist. While I was playing this scene they were taking my pants off down below and changing into something else … there’s no cutting,” Arness said in the interview.
At least on “Gunsmoke” he had enough time for a private outfit change.
‘William Tell,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and Other Performances
“William Tell” was a made-for-television movie that was based on the story of Wilhelm Gorkeit of Tellikon, also known as William Tell. He was an archer and hero. Legends say he once shot an apple right off the top of his son’s head. He also once led a freedom rebellion in Switzerland.
Arness played the brave archer in the 1955 film that was edited into the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It was certainly an interesting first experience on live television. His experience on “Gunsmoke” would be quite different. There was room for planning and preparation in ways that were impossible at the time to recreate on live TV.
The very first live television broadcast happened in 1929 to British audiences. It was just a live transmission. Most commonly known is the September 4, 1951 live television broadcast. It broadcast President Harry Truman’s speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in California to broadcast stations across the nation.
While his first live performance was in 1955, Arness’ final TV and movie roles weren’t for many years later. His last character role in TV was in “McClain’s Law” as Detective Jim McClain from 1981 to 1982. After that, he had been in a couple of television broadcasts to host different shows.
As for his film career, his last role was related to his time with “Gunsmoke.” It was “Gunsmoke V: One Man’s Justice” from 1993. James Arness had a highly successful career in Hollywood and is one of the most memorable Western stars to this day.