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James Arness – A Talk With Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon:

Tony Morris

Special to the Mirror

2005 marked the 50th anniversary of Gunsmoke, the longest running primetime series on American television. From 1955 to 1975, generations of Americans watched James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Chester, Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, Milburn Stone as Doc and Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen.

In 1955, as a 13-year-old growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I remember our family gathering to watch Gunsmoke on a 15-inch black and white Philco television set. My father, a veteran of World War I, admired Arness and insisted we experience the show together. In those days, with daily farm chores and homework, we were allowed to watch television one hour each day.

Arness’s acting career flourished while under contract to John Wayne’s production company, Batjac. When Wayne declined to accept CBS’s offer to play the part of Marshall Matt Dillon, he suggested his friend Arness be given an audition. The 6’ 7’’ actor got the part. For twenty years, and 630 episodes, Arness was Matt Dillon, until the show was cancelled by CBS in 1975. As sometimes happens in show business when a series is cancelled, Gunsmoke’s veteran producer, John Mantley, read about the show’s cancellation in the trade papers. “John was mad as hell. He was a real fighter,” says Arness.

Over the years, Arness has received countless awards. Among them is Honorary United States Marshall, Badge #2, “In recognition of his unique contribution to the Image and Traditions of the U.S. Marshal’s Service.” Arness was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, and, in 2003, he received a resolution from the Mayor and City Council of Los Angeles honoring his life’s work as an actor and 60-year resident of the city. Arness and his wife Janet live in Brentwood.

In an interview by telephone from his home, Mr. Arness reminisced:

Mirror: When did you leave Minneapolis for Los Angeles?

JA: A friend of mine said we ought to go to Los Angeles in Christmas 1945. There was snow on the ground in Minneapolis when we left. We got hooked by Los Angeles…I remember when I left for Los Angeles my mother said I would not be coming back. She was intuitive.

Mirror: What are your memories of John Wayne?

JA: He was the man. He was one of a kind. He convinced me to take the Gunsmoke series. The other day I was watching one of my favorite Wayne films: The Quiet Man, with Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond. Another great Wayne film is The Searchers.

Mirror: Do you watch much television?

JA: I watch TV about eight hours a day.

Mirror: How about Gunsmoke episodes?

JA: Yes, I can watch them on TV Land.

Mirror: What is your opinion of today’s movies?

JA: They are not my kind of movies, the movies that would appeal to me. I don’t connect to Hollywood of today and I don’t know the new generation of actors.

Mirror: Do you get letters and e-mails from your fans?

JA: I get about 40 to 50 a week. Many are from viewers who were five and six back in the ‘50’s, way back that early.

Mirror: What happened when you went to the White House when Eisenhower was president?

JA: I was in Washington D.C. when Ike was president. I met a California senator whose secretary took us on to the Senate floor. Then we went to the White House for a visit and were told that the president was in a meeting. Actually he was back on his putting green. I never met him but the Washington newspapers said, “President Eisenhower could not meet with the legendary actor.”

Mirror: What about surfing?

JA: We surfed at San Onofre. We loved it. In the late ‘50’s we surfed up and down the coast. In winter at Rincon. We had a house in Hawaii, at Makaha, where we spent a number of weeks. Also Holister Ranch. We had wonderful years of surfing there. I surfed a lot with John Horn – a Los Angeles City Lifeguard Captain, now retired – at Redondo Beach. It was so good. I had a knee operation and then it was boogie boarding.

For more information on the life and career of James Arness, go to www.jamesarness.com

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