A significant era of television history came to a close last week with the passing of James Arness, the man who starred as Marshal Matt Dillion during the twenty years that Gunsmoke was a part of the American cultural landscape. Arness, who starred in the weekly television western from its beginning in 1955 until the show's final episode in 1975 - and in five follow-up Gunsmoke television movies - died at the age of eighty-eight on June 3rd.
Arness, the son of Norwegian immigrants and brother of actor Peter Graves, got his start in the movie business in 1947 with a small role in a film called The Farmer's Daughter that starred Loretta Young, Joseph Cotten, and Ethel Barrymore. In 1953 he played an Indian scout for the U.S. Calvary in the movie Hondo. John Wayne, the star of that film purchased the rights to Hondo from Louis L'Amour, the man who originally published it as a short story. The sale of that story led L'Amour to believe that he could write books - and boy did he ever!
But I digress.
John Wayne developed a personal friendship with the young actor who would go on to star in America's most famous television western series, and when the show premiered on CBS in 1955, it was Wayne who appeared on camera to talk about James Arness and to legitimize the young actor as somebody families could accept as a true western star. If The Duke says the boy's alright, well then, Pilgrim...
Here is the John Wayne introduction of the very first television episode of Gunsmoke:
"Good evening. My name's Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I've been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I've made a lot of pictures out here, all kinds, and some of them have been Westerns. And that's what I'm here to tell you about tonight: a Western—a new TV show called Gunsmoke. No, I'm not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it's the best thing of its kind that's come along, and I hope you'll agree with me; it's honest, it's adult, it's realistic. When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He's a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you've had to get used to me! And now I'm proud to present my friend Jim Arness in Gunsmoke."
Gunsmoke actually began as a radio show and ran from 1952 through 1961. Actor William Conrad was the voice of Marshal Dillon on the radio. CBS took the show to television in 1955 as a thirty-minute weekly presentation on Saturday nights. From 1957 through 1961 it was the highest rated television show in America. The show was subsequently expanded to one-hour in 1961, after which its numbers began to decline and it never regained the top spot. The final episode count at the end of the twenty-year run was 635 - a record that still stands.
Over the years a host of fine actors appeared on Gunsmoke, but the four who will be best-remembered for their roles are Arness, Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty - the owner of the Long Branch Saloon), Dennis Weaver, (the limping deputy, Chester Goode), and Milburn Stone (the irascible Doc Adams). They have all passed now, with Marshal Dillon bringing up the rear.
A fifth person who was a semi-regular on the program and had a tenuous connection to my family was Anderson, Missouri, native Dabbs Greer who played the shopkeeper, Mr. Jonas. Greer was a Hollywood character actor who appeared in hundreds of movies and television programs. He even had an uncredited role as a bad guy in the first television episode of Superman.
My mother worked with Dabbs Greer at his family's drug store in Anderson in the late 1930's. The first time I saw him he was walking down Main Street in my hometown of Noel, Missouri, heading for a dental visit with Dr. Dale Croddy and his wife, Virginia - whom Greer had known as a young man in Anderson. My mother, upon seeing her old friend, rushed next door to the dental office for a quick hello, and although they had not seen each other for many years, Greer greeted her with, "Why, it's Flo, isn't it?" Florine actually, but it probably was "Flo" in the 1930's! A few years later I saw the actor at the license bureau in the county seat of Pineville, and in 1969 he was the speaker at my sister's high school graduation in Anderson.
But I digress, yet again.
My father, Garland Macy, who was a year younger than James Arness, lived for Gunsmoke. Dad worked long days and sometimes well into the evening hours, but on Saturday nights he was firmly parked in front of the television to watch his favorites, Have Gun Will Travel and Gunsmoke. In Dad's declining years he amassed a big collection of Gunsmoke tapes, and when he wasn't reading Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey (or the Wall Street Journal), he could usually be found in front of the television focused on the exploits of Marshal Dillon.
James Arness was an important part of twentieth century America. At a time when it was easier to discern the good guys from the bad guys, Arness was always one of the good guys. He will be missed by those of us of a certain age!
Rest in peace, old timer - and thanks for the memories!