On Friday, James Arness, the actor best known as Marshal Matt Dillon on the classic television series Gunsmoke, passed away. He was 88.
Arness was an icon of old television: a quality actor and a quality person. Standing a huge 6 feet 7 inches, Arness was too tall to serve in the Air Forces during World War II, so instead, he joined the Army. Arness took a bullet to the leg during the invasion of Italy in 1944, a wound that would bother him the rest of his life.
Gunsmoke is #6 on my list of the top conservative television shows in my book Primetime Propaganda. As I wrote there, “This was the archetypal American Western television show . . . Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon, the upright sheriff standing up for law and order, unafraid to use a gun to get the black hat.” Of course, contemporary media coverage now says that Gunsmoke was trying to teach lessons in nonviolence, but Dillon’s attempts to solve things peacefully didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to use force when necessary — and it did become necessary on a relatively frequent basis.
Dillon was a law-and-order man first and foremost. And Arness played Dillon with an understated clarity that matched the feel of his character precisely. There’s a reason John Wayne introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke personally, with this glowing recommendation: “When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke I knew there was only one man to play him — James Arness. He’s a young fellow and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you had to get used to me.”
Personally, Arness was a Republican. This led to some political awkwardness, since Lady Bird Johnson was an enormous fan of Gunsmoke. “If she missed an episode,” Arness wrote in his autobiography, “the Army Signal Corps would tape it for her later viewing. It was said that Matt Dillon reminded her of the young Lyndon Johnson, and that she was anxious to meet me. However, once she found out I was a Republican, she was crestfallen and was heard to remark, ‘How could he?’ We never met.”
Unfortunately, Hollywood is now more LBJ than Wayne. If Arness were up for a part today, and as identifiably and openly Republican now as he later became, he’d probably never get a call back. Fortunately, those were better times in television, at least as far as openness in politics is concerned, McCarthyism notwithstanding. And so we were treated to front-row seats to the career of a great actor and, from all accounts, a very good man. Rest in peace, James Arness, and thank you.