I remember how hard I took the news that James Arness passed away eight years ago today on June 3, 2011 with his boots off, in his own bed in Los Angeles. After all he was mostly remembered as a one note actor for just one part, albeit one he played for more than 20 years and all 633 episodes on television. He was 88 years old and had been in frail health for some time. But with him passed a treasured part of my childhood and teen years.
You see watching Gunsmoke on Sunday nights was a ritual at our house. Most of all, it was a bonding time with Dad. Mom’s roasted chicken Sunday dinner was over by 4 pm at the latest. We all found something to do until 6 pm—we were on Mountain Time in Cheyenne. By then Dad was out of his Sunday knock-around clothes and into striped ski pajamas, a faded blue plaid bathrobe, and well-worn brown leather slippers. He made himself a huge bowl of ice cream smothered in Hershey’s Syrup and sprinkled with salted Spanish peanuts and was settled into his big maroon arm chair, feet up on the footstool when Marshal Dillon set foot on the dusty streets of Dodge City, Kansas to face a desperado as the opening credits rolled.
And my brother Tim and I would be right beside him in our own ski pajamas, sitting in our own miniature arm chairs, gobbling down our own ice cream. We made a night of it—first Gunsmoke, then Have Gun Will Travel, and after a few years Bonanza. But Gunsmoke, grittier and more realistic than all of them, with a flawed hero who could—and did—often lose his man or a gunfight, was Dad’s favorite, and ours too. I am certain that more wisdom was transferred from father to sons in those hours than any other time we spent with our often reticent father.
The original radio cast of Gunsmoke--Howard McNear, later Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith Show; William Conrad, later Cannon, as Matt Dillon: Georgia Ellis as Miss Kitty; and Parley Baer as Chester Wesley Proudfoot.
Arness came to the CBS Television version of an established radio hit when the voice of Matt Dillon, deep voiced William Conrad, was deemed to portly for a TV hero. John Wayne, who had worked with Arness in films, most notably Big Jim McLain, an anti-communist pot boiler set in Hawaii, the western Hondo, Island in the Sky about transport pilots trying to survive after a crash in icy Labrador, and Sea Chase, recommended his 6 foot 7 inch tall buddy for the part. Arness played the part for twenty years in the TV series, and in a five made for TV movies from 1987 to 1993. Although he had a few other rolls, and a short lived series How the West Was Won, James Arness, for all practical purposes was Marshal Dillon.
Born as James Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the future actor’s father was second generation Norwegian and his mother of German decent. It was a solidly middle class family, but one which endured the struggles of the Depression. James helped support his family with part time jobs as a jewelry salesman, loading and unloading box cars, and even lumberjacking in Idaho one summer. He graduated from high school with indifferent grades and was drafted into the Army in 1943.
Pvt. James Aurness of the 3rd Infantry Division.
He landed at Anzio, Italy as a rifleman in the 3rd Infantry Division in January 1944. He was severely wounded in the operation, but won a Bronze Star for bravery under fire. He underwent several leg surgeries before being discharged in early 1945. His war wounds bothered him the rest of his life and made it painful for him to mount and dismount a horse.
After the war Aurness attended Beloit College on the GI Bill. He soon found work as a radio announcer in Minnesota. His interest in performing piqued, He headed for Hollywood in 1947. He caught on with RKO. The studio promptly dropped the “u” from his name. As James Arness his first roll was as Loretta Young’s brother in the 1947 classic The Farmer’s Daughter. He worked steadily in small rolls until teaming with Wayne for four films. He also starred in two B-movie science fiction films, The Thing from Another World and the cult classic Them! His younger brother followed him to Hollywood and got rolls in other sci-fi films under the name Peter Graves.
Arness with John Wayne in Hondo, one of four films the Duke made with him. When Wayne turned down the producers' long-shot offer to star in Gunsmoke, he recommended Arness instead.
But Gunsmoke made him a star in 1955. He portrayed Marshal Matt Dillon through all 633 episodes—the longest running live action drama on Television and the longest time an actor played the same lead role in a series until Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Mariska Hargitay.
When Gunsmoke came on the air, there was nothing like on TV. In the movies the popular western genre had grown up in the post war years with gritty films, adult themes, political allegory, and even psychological depth. Films like The Ox Bow Incident, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Red River, Winchester 73, The Gunfighter, and High Noon were serious works of art for serious film goers. But TV was still awash in the juvenile oaters in the vein of the old two-reelers—shows like Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, the Cicsco Kid, The Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy which was actually recycled from the old Saturday matinee flicks.
Gunsmoke creators hated all of that. They wanted a show as gown up as the new breed of western movies, one which would expose “the chaos and brutal violence” of the real frontier and be populated with characters with complex lives and motivations. The original radio show had been imagined as a hard-boiled detective show or a film noir set in lawless Kansas and it showed in the TV version, especially in the earlier years. There might be the occasional archetypical villain, but many of the criminals Marshall Dillon pursued were caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Nor, at least at first, was Dillon a flawless, self-sacrificing hero. He was often indecisive and torn with doubts. He made mistakes—including shooting the wrong men. He sometimes failed to get his man or stop the crime. He lost almost as many fights and gun battles as he won.
Marshall Dillon and Chester Goode--a deeper, darker version of the western hero and comic side-kick.
The show took off on the strength of a core cast that became classic. Veteran character actor Milburn Stone played Doc Adams, a sympathetic and philosophical man with hints of a haunted past who spent too many hours nursing beers at the Long Branch Saloon. Lanky Dennis Weaver played the gimpy deputy Chester Goode, earnest but ineffectual. Ironically he was given his unexplained limp so that viewers would always see him as subordinate to Marshal Dillon, played by a man with a genuine and serious leg injury.
Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty rounded out the cast ensemble. On the radio show and in the early seasons it was clear that Kitty was not just a “dance hall girl” but also clearly a prostitute. Although it was never explicitly mentioned she could occasionally be seen descending the stairs with the Marshall, who obviously enjoyed her services. Other girls could be seen climbing the stairs with customers. But as the series gained in popularity, Miss Kitty needed to be cleaned up for TV. Her dresses grew less revealing, her make-up less garish, and she morphed into a kind of respectable business woman as the proprietor of the Long Branch. She had plenty of time to sit with the Marshall and Doc Adams to discuss the affairs of the town over endless steins of half-finished beer. And she pined away with unrequited love for her law man who remained seemingly oblivious.
As this season one publicity photo shows, there was not room for much doubt about Miss Kitty's profession in the early run of the season, or of Marshall Dillon as her favorite client.
This ensemble lasted through the initial run of six seasons in a half hour format. In the fall of 1961 the show was expanded to an hour. Weaver left soon in 1964 to pursue a wider career. There were a string of helpers/sidekicks/deputies thereafter, most notably Burt Reynolds as the “half breed” blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962-65 and Ken Curtis, recently the lead tenor of the Sons of the Pioneers as the illiterate saddle tramp and small time criminal turned good-guy Festus Haggan.
In 1966 as ratings for the long running show began to lag a little, the introduction of color caused them to bounce bat into the top 10. The show was never out of the top 20 for the rest of its run until its last year after Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone had both left the cast. In 1974-75 season it still ran a respectable number 28.
The cast ensemble for most of the run of the one hour color version of the show--Arness, Burt Reynolds as blacksmith Quint Asper, Ken Curtis as Festus, Amanda Blake as a more respectable version of Miss Kitty, and Milburn Stone as Doc Adams.
The program has survived in perpetual syndication and on cable. The half hour programs were repackaged as Marshall Dillon and Gunsmoke is the anchor of MeTV’s afternoon horse opera block. Those episodes still hold up as some of the best scripted series television of all time.