‘Gunsmoke’: James Arness Told Story of How John Wayne Recommending Him for Matt Dillon Role

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Gunsmoke fans can thank John Wayne for two delightful decades of James Arness.

Arness owned the part of Marshal Matt Dillon. At 6-foot-7, he walked tall in Dodge City. The show ran for 20 years, giving the American TV audience 635 Gunsmoke episodes. And Arness owned the show, keeping it authentic.

But show creators originally wanted John Wayne as the star.

Arness, back in 2006, discussed how Wayne turned down the Gunsmoke role. Since this was circa, 1955, John Wayne had plenty on his acting plate. He did some of his finest run while Gunsmoke was on the air, with movies like Rio Bravo, the Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and True Grit.

But Wayne wanted Arness, his friend, to do the role.

Arness recalled: “Well, I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along. 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.”

Two big western stars meet again as “Gunsmoke” star Jim Arness stopped by to visit his old friend John Wayne. During the visit on the set of Wayne’s current movie the actors recalled that back in 1952 Arness was under contract to Duke. Wayne was asked to a thing called “Gunsmoke” but sold the producers on Jim instead.

John Wayne Didn’t Come to Gunsmoke Set at Melody Ranch For His Premiere Intro

Arness was doing the interview with the Santa Clarita Valley Press Club. And the area was near and dear to his heart. Gunsmoke was filmed at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif. So many shows and movies used Melody Ranch as its western set.

Gene Autry, known as the Singing Cowboy, bought the ranch in 1952. And in its recent glory, some of the shows and movies that were filmed there included Deadwood, Westworld, Once Upon a Time In HollywoodDjango Unchained and Magnificent Seven

John Wayne, as promised, did his intro for the first-ever TV episode of Gunsmoke. And although he’d filmed movies at Melody Ranch, Arness said he chose the studio for his part in Gunsmoke.

And here’s the Duke’s Gunsmoke into:

“Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here, all kinds, and some of them have been Westerns. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight: a Western—a new television show called Gunsmoke.

“No, I’m not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it’s the best thing of its kind that’s come along, and I hope you’ll agree with me; it’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star, so you might as well get used to him, like you’ve had to get used to me! And now I’m proud to present my friend Jim Arness in Gunsmoke.”

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