For James Arness, starring in Gunsmoke was the chance of a lifetime. The merits of Arness’s acting aside, Matt Dillon was not only the best thing that happened to Arness: it was also the longest-standing character he impersonated. The longevity of the show – two decades, which made it one of the lengthiest American TV shows ever – brought him a rightful spot in a theme museum in the early 1980s.
Biographies might exaggerate, but it indeed took a star for Arness to become a star. At that point where he met John Wayne, Arness was not particularly interested in signing up for what seemed to be, even back then, a long-lasting horse drama character. No, he thought quite the opposite, envisaging a different career as a big screen star.
Impressed with his height and carriage several years before the idea of Gunsmoke, John Wayne saw in him the potential and recognized the necessary makeup for becoming the iconic western hero. Indeed, it is to the very John Wayne that Arness owes his appearance in Gunsmoke.
Whatever the battery of arguments used by Wayne, history records Arness immediately took his mentor’s advice. Twenty years later and – there you go – it seems Wayne made his point.
Of course there is much more to an actor’s career than its starting point. Any number of things could have gone wrong – and perhaps they did – but Arness persevered. However, I can’t hep but wonder what would have become of him if it weren’t for Wayne. And, to continue this line of thought, what would have become of Gunsmoke? Could there have been any better actor to play Marshall Matt Dillon?
As homage to Wayne, James Arness took the chance and played, several good years after the interruption of Gunsmoke, Thomas Dunson: the very character one impersonated by Wayne in the original Red River, released in 1948.
I love westerns, and these sorts of symmetries that take special circumstances and opportunities to occur make my heart melt. In particular when titans like Wayne and Arness are involved. I often like to think the career of the latter started and ended – symbolically, at least – with Wayne, however differently historical facts might indicate.