James Arness on returning to Dodge for the Gunsmoke reunion

"I certainly feel 12 years older," said the former TV Marshal.

By 1987, Westerns weren't exactly "de rigueur" on TV or at the cinema. Although the genre had once been a top draw across both mediums, it had largely fallen out of fashion. While there were occasionally hit Western movies in the 80s, there was never anything like a trend that television networks could capitalize on.

So it was with some trepidation that the reunion movie Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge was produced to air on CBS. In an interview with the Associated Press, Marshal Matt Dillon himself, James Arness, called the telecast "something of an experiment."

"We have to see if there's an audience for the Western," said Arness. 

While he had intermittent success in Gunsmoke's wake, nothing offered Arness the consistency or high-profile stature of his most famous role. Despite this, though, he was hesitant to return to the role, stressing the desire to do everything the right way.

"It's 12 years later, and I certainly feel 12 years older. To try to go back and try to pick up this character was a major problem. My main concern was how to put it back together and make it believable. There were a lot of people who loved Gunsmoke. It was something special to them. It had a mystique. My concern is whether we can live up to that.

Westerns may not have been trendy in 1987, but Gunsmoke had never followed trends anyway. When Arness was asked what made the show such an enduring success, Arness praised its uniqueness. After all, it was only the second-ever grown-up Western on TV. While its television peers caught up, Gunsmoke never buckled to pressure in creating cliched or predictable Western plots.

"We had a lot of offbeat storylines," said Arness. "Matt was a man who wasn't always right and we didn't always have happy endings. It captured [fan] interest and carried us along until people got to know and love this family of characters.

"Matt was a twist on the usual Western leading man. he didn't enjoy the job. We borrowed heavily from High Noon. He was a man who had a tough job to do, and when the showdown came not everyone was behind him. He was shoved out there alone. It was a new approach for television."

So, after all those years, could the audience expect any closure regarding the will-they/won't-they relationship between Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty?

"There was always a hint of romance," said Arness, "but it was always offstage. The main thing is that Matt and Kitty had a great friendship and strong ties. In the movie, Kitty travels back to Dodge when she learns Matt has been hurt. I think people who remember the show from the old days will pick up on that." 

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4 Comments

thewide7 3 months ago
I grew up watching Gunsmoke in the 50’s and 60’s. Westerners will always be my favorite genre. I still watch on MeTV almost every day. I really love ❤️ the black and white version of Gunsmoke the best. 😎👀🍺😇🥃
cperrynaples 3 months ago
Amanda Blake was the only co-star to return! She died before the other movies were made!
TheKodakKid cperrynaples 3 months ago
Milburn Stone had passed away by the time the reunion was filmed. Buck Taylor did reprise his role as Newly.
Runeshaper 3 months ago
Arness was a GREAT Matt Dillon. I bet the reunion felt a bit like coming home (-:
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