‘Gunsmoke’: Why James Arness Decided to Get into Acting After Serving Overseas in World War II

by Katie Maloney
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How did a military man like James Arness become one of the world’s most iconic television cowboys?

James Arness never knew he wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t until he returned from serving in World War II and moved to California that he discovered his hidden acting talents. Very quickly after he delved into acting, he landed his first role on The Farmer’s Daughter. He also acted in several westerns, two sci-fi classics, and acted alongside Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. Arness even made four films with John Wayne. Then he landed the role of a lifetime. The 6’7″ actor starred as western lawman, Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. During an interview before his passing in 2011, James Arness talked about how he ended up in show business.

“I came home from the service to Minneapolis, and I was cruising along and enjoying being back home and in civilian life. A friend of mine who had been in the Navy out here in Southern California had just gotten home, and he called me up and we met and had a few drinks and he said, ‘Boy, we ought be out there right now, it’s a great place.’”

Arness said that he and his friend knew a guy who had worked as an extra in several movies, and they were excited to try to do the same.

“He knew some guy who had been an extra in movies, so we came out, looked him up, and thought maybe we’d get on as extras once in a while. We just kind of drifted in it,” said Arness. “I did wind up going to a little acting school and picked up on that, and things just sort of opened up there for a while.”

“Sort of opened up there,” is definitely an understatement. James Arness earned three Emmy awards for his portrayal on Gunsmoke. And the show still holds the record as television’s longest-running western – it aired for 20 years.

James Arness Revealed the Reason Why Gunsmoke Lasted for 20 Years

A show airing for 20 years is almost unheard of. But Gunsmoke fans never tired of Marshall Matt Dillon’s fight against lawlessness in the west. During the same interview, James Arness said that the show found success so quickly because Gunsmoke had built-in audiences before it ever aired on television.

“It ran on radio for, I think, three or four seasons before they brought it to television, so they had the characters all honed down and the storylines,” said Arness. “In fact, during the first couple of years we used many of the old radio scripts just readapted for television. That was one of the main things that got the ball rolling. People would see it and realize it was a really high quality show.”

Although the show successfully made the transition from radio to television, James Arness never quit the show and tried to transition into movie acting. He said too many actors had tried to do that and failed.

“No. An awful lot of TV actors tried that and didn’t do too well,” said Arness. “Just a few of them made the transition—Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen—but not too many made it.”

Outsider.com