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.