James Arness explains why he originally passed on the role of Marshal Matt Dillon
Good thing John Wayne talked turkey to the actor!
Nowadays, the biggest productions on television constantly compete for our attention, but back in the first half of the 1950s, there was pretty much just one show that the whole world was abuzz about: Gunsmoke.
The plan was to turn the popular radio drama into prestige television, and just about every actor in town was vying to be its star: Marshal Matt Dillon. Of course, Gunsmoke would eventually debut in 1955 and, surprising no one, remain one of the most popular and longest-running shows of all time, stretching across 20 seasons. But nobody knew that back when casting began, especially not a young actor named James Arness.
Arness was just at the beginning of his career, featured in bit parts of movies in the late 1940s before an appearance on The Lone Ranger in 1950 helped him attract more roles, including coveted spots in major movie Westerns like John Ford's Wagon Train. Arness was actually in the Bahamas filming a different kind of drama called Big Jim McLain when he got the idea that he might want to toss his hat in the ring for the starring role on Gunsmoke.
There was only one thing keeping him from arranging a read - the director of that movie, Edward Ludwig, apparently told Arness it would kill his career if he went down that road. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Arness said Ludwig gave him this advice: "I don’t know. You’re doing pretty well right now in the movies. You’re at a point where if you got just the right break in a movie, you might really step up. If you get stuck in a television series, like a Western thing, and it goes a couple of seasons and then dies ... You’ll be in bad trouble in the movies. You’ll be used goods."
In the interview, Arness said he weighed this over seriously, "I paid attention to his views because he was an old-timer, you know?" This next bit will stun you as much as any fight scene on the show, so brace yourself, Gunsmoke fans: James Arness got the call to come in and audition while he was still on Ludwig's set, and like any impressionable young man, he decided to listen to the old-timer. So when Gunsmoke called, this is what Arness said: "I said, thank you very much but I think I’m going to pass."
Now remember, Gunsmoke didn't need James Arness to make the show happen. There were tons of actors who wanted that part. But the good news is: They wanted him. In fact, they wanted him bad enough to call up The Duke himself, John Wayne, whose company Arness was contracted to. And Arness said it was John Wayne who set things right with this advice: "Look, you’d be crazy not to take this thing. It’ll be just like it was with me when I was a young actor."
And when that wasn't enough, The Duke went on to praise TV acting further, "You will really learn your craft if you get in there. You have to work fast, and ... you have to pick up your pace, and you’ll learn a whole lot about acting in front of a camera and doing stunt work."
This was the advice that sold Arness on becoming Matt Dillon, moseying along in the footsteps of his Western hero. In the interview, Arness put it like this, "He really talked turkey to me."