John Wayne Helped Launch James Arness’ Career With Gunsmoke
John Wayne Helped Launch James Arness’ Career With GunsmokeCBSBY DREW TINNIN/MARCH 18, 2023 6:00 PM ESTJames Arness starred as lawman Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for an incredible run of 20 seasons from 1955-1975. Until “The Simpsons” surpassed it in 2018, the epic series dramatizing the American West was the longest running television show in history. Originally, John Wayne was offered the role but turned it down because he had no interest in committing to a weekly TV series. If he had accepted the part, it’s incredibly unlikely the series would have ever run that long, and more TV movies of “Gunsmoke” probably would have hit the airwaves instead.
During the first couple of years of “Gunsmoke,” filming took place at the legendary Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, one of the premiere Western movie towns of the 1950s with multiple locations and a working train helping to fill in for the real Dodge City. Arness received a Walk of Western Stars award presented to him at Melody Ranch where he was interviewed about how working with Wayne early on in his career led to the role of a lifetime.
Arness began working with Wayne in supporting roles in B-movies like “Big Jim McLain,” “Hondo,” “Island in the Sky,” and “The Sea Chase.” When Wayne recommended Arness for the lead role on “Gunsmoke,” the legendary actor even introduced Arness to the television audience himself in the premiere episode’s prologue in 1955. Wayne never set foot at Melody Ranch, recording the introduction in the studio. Although their relationship soured over the years, an endorsement from John Wayne obviously went a long way, paving the way for Arness’ six-foot-seven frame to saunter onto the “Gunsmoke” set where he would remain for two decades. Amidst all kinds of cultural upheaval and generational change, Arness remained a constant in the living rooms of millions of Americans.
The beginning and ending of a beautiful friendshipUnited ArtistsJames Arness apparently still held The Duke in high regard when he spoke about being recommended for the part:
“When the ‘Gunsmoke’ offer came in, [John Wayne] said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.’ So he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”
Arness seems eternally grateful, but the two stars had an eventual falling out over an issue concerning John Wayne’s passion project to make a big budget epic about the battle of the Alamo. Wayne had been working to secure the funding for almost 15 years, and had planned to play the much smaller role of Sam Houston in “The Alamo” which eventually made it to theaters in 1960. To secure the proper backing for the $12 million dollar budget, he agreed to star as Davy Crockett and wound up throwing in $1.5 million of his own fortune after taking out second mortgages on his opulent homes to secure a loan.
Hoping that Arness would return the favor of being cast in the hit show “Gunsmoke,” Wayne set up a meeting for Arness about filling in for the role of Sam Houston. Arness completely flaked and never showed up to the interview, leaving Wayne hanging — something The Duke never forgot. Richard Boone ended up playing Houston, and Arness never appeared in another feature film again.
Cowboys & aliensRKO PicturesLargely due to his height, James Arness’ big break came when he was cast as the Frankenstein-esque alien in “The Thing From Another World” in 1951. Described as looking like an “intellectual carrot,” there were rumors swirling for years that Arness regretted taking the role. “Well, it’s always with me, but it was great,” Arness recalled. “I was at the stage where I was trying to get any job I could, [and] that thing came along. I wasn’t going to turn that down.”
Early on in Arness’ career, he would mostly play heavies or a gang member because of how imposing he was onscreen. His height ended up being more of a blessing than a curse, and thanks to John Wayne, he’s remembered now as a classic cowboy instead of a lumbering creature from outer space.
Widely regarded as one of the best remakes ever, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” completely transformed the original “Thing From Another World” into a claustrophobic, effects laden masterpiece. Interestingly, the film’s would-be hero, R.J. MacReady played by Kurt Russell in Carpenter’s 1982 retelling, has another connection to James Arness. Russell appeared in “Gunsmoke” as a kid named Packy Kerlin in the 1964 episode “Blue Heaven.”