You can thank The Lone Ranger for setting James Arness on the ''right road'' in his first TV role ever
The noble TV lawman played a double-crossing deputy.
Image: Gray-Schwartz Enterprises
The first time anyone saw James Arness on TV, it was five years before we'd meet his most famous character Marshal Matt Dillon. It was a 1950 episode of The Lone Ranger that found Arness in a barber's chair, set for a shave when two "saddlebums" cause a stir in the shop.
When Arness' character, a prideful deputy named Bud Titus whose uncle Jim is the town sheriff, steps to the dark-hatted strangers, one of them fails to fall back, looking Arness right in the face and saying, “You know that tin badge don’t scare me none. I think it ought to be pinned to your nose."
Arness as the deputy sends them scrambling out the door, the other stranger reeling in his tough guy friend. They're aware of something that Arness will soon learn in the very next scene when his uncle finds him in the shop and scolds him for missing a meeting: There's a reward on these men's heads. They're more than just "saddlebums;" they're wanted outlaws.
It seems in his first TV role, Arness was not the most upstanding officer of the law. When his uncle shows him a poster of two wanted men identical to the strangers he just scuffled with, Deputy Bud chooses dishonesty, refusing to confirm he's seen the outlaws, then threatening the sheriff to "take my word or take my badge."
The sheriff insists he needs Bud to help him find the outlaws, but the $5,000 reward on the poster has already shifted Bud's loyalties, making Arness' first onscreen role a very shifty character indeed, so shifty he needed The Lone Ranger himself to set him straight!
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Arness explained, “I was a young guy who was kind of starting out on the wrong road. I was joining in with a gang of guys who weren’t too savory at all and [The Lone Ranger] liked me, so he took the trouble to getting me aside and setting me on the right road.”
What actually happens in the episode matches much of what Arness remembered, as his character Bud meets The Lone Ranger at last in the final five minutes of the show, only instead of joining in with a gang of guys, Arness' character is more like an evil lone ranger, only out for himself. The double-crossing deputy finds The Lone Ranger is in the middle of fighting the outlaws, but when he points his gun, it's at the hero instead of the villains. "How much on your head?" Bud asks The Lone Ranger, proving he's only out for himself in quite the opposite way of the noble TV hero who came so far before Gunsmoke's equally noble lawman.
It gets even worse when The Lone Ranger points out that Bud's uncle the sheriff is wounded on the floor. "He needs help," the Ranger says, but Bud sees only dollar signs, refusing to lower his weapon and risk losing out on the reward of capturing all the outlaws, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Not even a dying uncle can budge his selfish heart.
Clearly Bud needs some schooling, and The Lone Ranger easily disarms him to tie up the episode by making sure the barber gets the reward money, then telling Bud the barber deserved it more for fighting to save a man he didn't know, instead of fighting to take down another for personal gain. The barber is the hero, The Lone Ranger explains when James Arness is left with nothing but a dumbfounded statement, "I don't get it." But his next to final line of the episode would end up foretelling the actor's future, "I better ask for my badge back. I'm gonna need a job."
That job, of course, would end up being the Marshal of Dodge City on Gunsmoke for more than two decades. Later in life, Arness said he ended up at a "get-together of Western actors" where The Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore was also present. He said he approached him to tell him he'd been on one of his shows, and it's as nice an image as two cowboys by a campfire on an open plain to think of the Western icons harkening back to this turning point in the Gunsmoke star's career. "He was a very nice guy," Arness said with a smile in his interview, tipping his hat to the TV icon who set him down the "right road" for good.