The Corner

James Arness R.I.P.

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.

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More