James Arness has died: why he was the greatest TV Western lawman

James Arness, a great Sequoia tree in the forest of TV Western heroes, has died; he was 88. Arness is immortal in TV history as Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, the longest-running network drama in television history with the most episodes. (Gunsmoke‘s 635 episodes versus Law & Order’s 456; the two are tied with 20 seasons.) This feat would have been impossible without the presence of Arness, a 6-foot-7, quiet man who gave an air of serene authority to Matt Dillon.

Seen now on cable reruns, Gunsmoke looks like an old-fashioned Western, filled with shoot-outs (Marshal Dillon was reluctant to draw his gun, but when he did, the villains went down in the Dodge City dust), swinging-door saloons (Miss Kitty, played by Amanda Blake, ran the Long Branch Saloon and had a special, if discreet, relationship with Matt), and colorful supporting characters, most notably Dennis Weaver, as the limping, earnest Chester; Milburn Stone as the wise Doc Adams; Ken Curtis as the cornpone comic-relief Festus; and, in later seasons, Burt Reynolds as the town blacksmith, Quint Asper.

But in its time — 1955–75 — Gunsmoke was considered something new, a more serious, thoughtful, “adult” Western, as opposed to the kid-friendly, rootin’-tootin’ shoot-’em-ups of early TV such as The Roy Rogers Show and The Lone Ranger. Arness, who had little formal training as an actor, radiated a firm confidence. Originally a radio series, Gunsmoke was conceived in its transition to television as an ideal vehicle for someone such as John Wayne. Depending on which interview you read, Wayne either declined to star or wasn’t offered the role, but he did introduce the first episode, urging viewers to watch Arness, with whom Wayne had worked in movies such as Big Jim McLain and Hondo: “He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you,” said Wayne. “But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star.”

Wayne’s thumbs-up helped Gunsmoke initially, but it took a few seasons for the show to become a huge success. The key to this was Arness’ portrayal of Matt Dillon as a ruminative man with a strong code of honor that gained him the love and loyalty of millions of viewers. Arness’ Dillon was a modern Western hero, unflinching when it came to meting out justice — murderers who didn’t surrender got shot by the Marshal, who tried to avoid violence but knew it was sometimes necessary.

Falling somewhere between the escapism of The Lone Ranger and the bloody realism of Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist films such as The Wild Bunch, Gunsmoke was a crucial link in the development of the Western. Gunsmoke owed something to features such as High Noon and the Westerns directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks, but Arness helped turn the show into something unique for the small screen. The series possessed an eclectic, elastic quality. One week, you could have a comic-relief episode with the Marshal joshing around with Chester and Festus; the next, the tone could turn grim, even doom-struck, the Western equivalent of a hard-boiled novel. This is one measure of both the show’s greatness, and Arness’ fully inhabited performance as Dillon.

Thanks to Arness and his fellow cast members, Gunsmoke might be considered one of the first workplace-family shows on TV. Matt, Kitty, Chester, and Doc would spend a lot of time just sitting around and talking — the dialogue was good enough to sustain the action. (Amanda Blake once said wryly, “This is the only show on TV where the characters sit in a barroom and say hello for half an hour.”)

But the plots often found Arness at the center of an injustice that needed to be set right. A progressive show, it featured plots that had Marshal Dillon protecting black and Indian characters from mob violence. Dillon stood up for indigent farmers and helpless women of ill repute.

The show took full advantage of Arness’ imposing demeanor. From the opening credits to many climactic showdowns, the camera framed Arness in the center, a big, silent man, awaiting either peace or violence, commanding attention amidst even the most boastful or colorful of bad guys.

Arness was a veteran of World War II, and a recipient of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He acted in numerous films, including Them! Arness’ younger brother was the actor Peter Graves; it’s striking that these siblings starred in shows that helped define their genres, the Western, and in Graves’ case, the spy story (Mission: Impossible).

On his website, Arness wrote a letter to his fans “to post on our website in the event I was no longer here.” He expressed gratitude for his long career, love for his wife, Janet, and wrote to his fans in conclusion: “Thank you again for the many letters, cards, and emails we received from you over the years. You are and always have been appreciated. Sincerely, Jim Arness.”

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: James Arness dead

Comments (211 total) Add your comment
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  • marian

    Grew up watching Gunsmoke and certainly spent some of my youth in love with James Arness. Can’t help but hope that Matt, Kitty and Doc are all sitting up in the afterlife, talking about the good times. RIP

    • statqueen

      Don’t forget about Festus :)

  • jfms777

    This is really sad. Thanks for a great tribute. Great show. Great actor. Today you don’t often see tv characters with “high moral ground.” Matt Dillon had high moral ground. Lucky for us.

  • GG

    Great article about a great man. Thank you!

    • robin

      Hey my name is robin im a female and i like james arness alos i use to watch him with my grandma at a young age now i watch more more like him he was great man good actor i love watchin all his movies and gunsmoke

      • robin

        My name is robin im a female im a fan of james arness i liked him from a young age 12 14 i watch u james arness with my grandma now i watch u all the time and i have watch your other movies i like when he was on this earth i had a little crush on him but im a fan of his i miss u james arness i know others do to and family u was a good actor it to bad u passed away Rip james arness

  • Scott

    James, thanks for being my childhood hero. I love you greatly, you will be missed but never forgotten.

  • maureen

    Thank you so much for honoring James Arness. I discovered Gunsmoke on the Western channel and TVLand, and it has become my favorite show. James Arness portrayed Matt Dillon as an ordinary man who was extraordinary at his job. The entire cast was great. They could do drama and comedy. It is remarkable how well it has aged. Many of the shows still feel relevant today. And it’s fun to see the guest stars that show up, i.e. Kurt Russell, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy and countless others. Matt Dillon is one of the greatest TV characters.

    • Joan Martin

      I remember watching “Gunsmoke when I was a teenager, but now its on TCM and CBS I am addicted to it, I love Ken curtiss and the doc, wish there had been more romance between Mat and Kitty, There is a young man in it now, he looks like Mat Dillon, is he any relation,

      • Joan Martin

        How many times was James Arness married.

  • D

    Wonderful tribute…

  • Chuck Ranker

    I too grew up watching Gunsmoke. In later years I followed his website monthly. Felt things were not going well when he did not write his greetings letter for several months this spring. R I P Big Man !!

  • Toby

    Wasn’t Miss Kitty basically a pimp?

    • Rachel

      Inappropriate and irrelevant for an article honoring the life of James Arness. And just for the record–yes, she owned a saloon, but on more than one occasion scolded the girls for going too far, doing all she could to run a clean establishment.

    • Pat Buchanan

      Apparently you are not a regular viewer of Gunsmoke. Miss Kitty NEVER did anything to make anyone call her a pimp. Too bad people say cruel things they know nothing of.

    • larry burdge

      Most would refer, other than a bar owner, as a madam working her girls.

    • MaryJane

      What’s wrong with you, Toby? This is about a tribute to a great man, James Arness. Don’t be so crass.

    • L.T. Quinn

      Actually, the correct term for Miss Kitty would’ve been “Madame.” But since Amanda Blake has been dead for years, let’s talk about Arness. It’s sad that we will probably never see an actor of this caliber grace the big or small screen again. In this age of reality TV and special effects laden films, Arness’s presence will be missed by those that know what decent entertainment encompasses.

    • Chester

      She was a saloon madame and in those days, the girls would go upstairs with the men for sex. They also were there to have the men buy them drinks. As for Kitty and Matt, they never appeared in bed together but it was taken for granted that they were sexually active.

      • Heaven

        Thoguht it wouldn’t to give it a shot. I was right.

  • tiffany

    and excellent actor

  • Beni Fleming

    I was shocked that i saw the james areness had passed away at 88, i saw his picture in the entertainment section at CVs in april and that the article said his health wasn’t good, but it showed his young picture and present picture too.i;m always been a fan of Gunsmoke on tv land and on the western channel. Mu thoughts and prayers goes out to Janet and everyone. i will always watch Gunsmoke and there is Matt Dillion. May God Bless. Beni

  • art brown

    My nephew, Jim Ziepki,tried to out-draw him every night on TV when he was growinf-up, but never could. Hi Jim..

  • Mickey

    One of the first horror pics I ever saw was “The Thing”. In later yrs, I discovered that James Arness was “The Thing”. It scares me to this day! RIP, “friend”.

    • MaryJane

      Man, I totally agree! My family laughs at me when I tell them that “The Thing” is one movie that still scares me, I loved it when I was a kid, and still love it, but I won’t watch it alone. I think it’s because the dialogue seemed like it was coming from real people, the cast was great and the airman reading the military manual about what to do in case they came into contact with a UFO, was priceless. The ending was chilling, though “Watch the skies…” I still get goosebumps!

      • Irais

        That’s more than sesnblie! That’s a great post!

  • Rachel

    James Arness was truly a legend. My dad took me to meet him at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage for my 14th birthday back in 03. He was and always will be my hero,and I thank you for an article that honors his past so beautifully. This world will never see a man as great as Marshal Dillon again. Happy trails, Marshal!

  • doatsy

    A lovely tribute.

  • Robert “Bob” L Harrison

    You forgot his great role as “The Thing”– a foundation movie, still excellent, in its genre.

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