In a world where most of the producers believe that the best achievement would be stretching a series for as long as 10 seasons, Gunsmoke sure showed them all how things should be done. Not only did it last for 20 seasons, but it is also the longest-running prime-time drama (at a tie with Law & Order).
The show started out on radio at first, in 1952. Later on, in 1955, the idea was pitched to CBS, the television network showing little interest in developing it as a TV series. But eventually a decision was made and James Arness was cast in the role of Matt Dillon.
As the series then proved, this was the perfect choice. He wasn’t the troubled man all actors tend to be when becoming famous. In one of his earliest interviews, he even said that he doesn’t understand how an actor can be dissatisfied with anything at all, especially when his career is doing well and he has a loving family.
From this perspective, James Arness said that an actor shouldn’t just let his creativity take over, but that he should also pair it with rationality and practical thinking. Of course, everybody wants a bigger pay-check, but that doesn’t mean you have to risk everything in order to get it.
This is also the reason why he didn’t want to trouble himself with anything else than acting, as far as Gunsmoke is considered. This is what he did best and this is what he intended to do. Even if later on he did produce 54 of the episodes, he didn’t write and direct any of them (as other actors usually do when involved in a long-running series).
This self-awareness helped him in the later years also, in a way. As said before, he liked working on the series as an actor and nothing more. But, as fame came, he was offered roles in different other movies for the silver screen. Did he accept them?
James Arness said that he was very aware of the fact that many of the roles offered to him had nothing to offer than just money. He liked acting, but he didn’t want to be used just as a means of attracting more viewers. And that is because people will flock to the cinema to see Matt Dillon, only to end up disappointed. As the actor said, most of the roles he was offered were small-time, cameo-like, in small movies.
So where does that leave us?
59 years ago, on the 10th of September, Gunsmoke brought us Matt Dillon and kept it with us for 20 years. This September brought us the re-release of the 10th season of the series. It is expected that the 11th one will come until the end of the year.
This is not just a TV show, this is a legacy.