Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne was never offered the role of Marshal Matt Dillon

The most enduring rumor in the West.

Rumors have long persisted throughout Gunsmoke's run that originally, the leading Western man John Wayne was inches away from portraying the lead character of Marshal Matt Dillon in the series' original televised run. Today, we're attempting to put that rumor to rest, with some evidence straight from the source.

According to a TV Guide article exploring the series, those involved in the production actually addressed these rumors. Norman Macdonnell, who had a hand in the creation of the Gunsmoke radio program and later became a producer on the series, was able to shed some light on why it simply wouldn't have been logical for someone like Wayne to begin a television career.

Macdonnell said, "Wayne was a big movie star and wouldn't have considered TV for a minute." He even ventured as far as to have said, "It was just a publicity story."

Charles Marquis Warren, who helped develop Gunsmoke for television, also spoke up, utilizing the opportunity to both dispel the rumor and speak highly of Matt Dillon's actor, James Arness, whom Warren had worked with previously.

He said, "I hired James Arness on the strength of a picture he'd done with me... I never thought for a moment of offering it to Wayne. But to this day, even some of the cast go around repeating that story."

This doesn't mean that Wayne had nothing to do with Gunsmoke at all. Viewers might recall that he provided the opening narration to the series' first episode, but in addition, he also was the one who guided Arness into taking the role of Dillon in the first place.

Warren stated, "At the last minute, he [Arness] decided being on the little screen might not lead anywhere and he asked his friend Wayne to help get him out of his contract. Wayne not only advised Arness to take the show but volunteered to give it a send-off."

So, it turns out that James Arness was always destined to be Marshall Matt Dillon, and for good reason, too.

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9 Comments

LynCarrigan 6 months ago
I just watched True Grit again and my favorite scene was missing - he had the reins in his teeth and is charging firing two guns.
Snickers 6 months ago
Could you see Wayne as Matt Dillon? Hey pilgrim, why don't we all mosey on down to the Long Branch and get a couple beers?
WGH 7 months ago
The intro appears in the Gunsmoke premiere episode on demand on Paramount plus.

My wife is a huge fan of John Wayne and loved seeing that intro! You are right, it is pretty cool.
DocForbin 7 months ago
It's a shame that Wayne's intro for the premiere episode was cut out for syndication. I remember the last time Decades (now Catchy Comedy) had a Gunsmoke Weekend Binge I tuned in just to catch Wayne's intro in the first episode and I was very disappointed that it got cut.

However, perhaps the most unsung role Wayne ever had was in the movie "The Barbarian and the Geisha". In it, Wayne portrayed Townsend Harris, who was the US's first Consul-General to Japan and helped to negotiate the first trade treaty between Japan and another nation. Harris is still held in high esteem in Japan to this day. Harris has ties to my area because he was born in Hudson Falls NY (where I used to live) and a plaque dedicated to him is in front of Hudson Falls Village Hall. In fact, it was now late Kingsbury Town Historian Paul Loding (Hudson Falls is part of Kingsbury) who first told me about the movie and I got a chance to see it on The Family Channel (now Freeform). I can only hope that one of these days FETV will show it on its "John Wayne Matinee" they have on Sunday afternoons.
cperrynaples 7 months ago
John Wayne did act several times on TV! He did a Wagon Train as a favor to Ward Bond and a Screen Directors Playhouse when the director was John Ford! And let's not forget I Love Lucy, Maude, and The Beverly Hillbillies!
Bapa1 cperrynaples 7 months ago
Don't forget Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, where he shook Tiny Tim's hand and went down on one knee.
Suzies1952 7 months ago
I love John Wayne and watch all the movies they show on grit, I’ve never heard that rumor but if I had, I wouldn’t of believed it anyway Wayne was a movie star not a tv star! That’s not taking anything away from Arness
, I love him too, I wish me tv would notify us when they restart it again, I didn’t know about Wayne opening up the first episode, I would like to hear it thanks for this story about gun smoke, when I miss a day, I’m not happy, even though I’ve seen it all many times love ❤️ watching it it’s nice to read the different stories about the shows you have on!
Snickers Suzies1952 6 months ago
You can see that intro on you tube.
Runeshaper 7 months ago
It's cool that John Wayne helped to convince James Arness to take the role. That's a good friend right there (-:
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