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Published on Monday, June 20, 2011

James Arness' Legacy Lives On

By Michael T. Pizzolato



Like many Baby Boomers, I was born into a post-war world just over a half-century after the Wild West had settled down. And like the Old West era, the middle of the 20th Century was still a time for heroes, real and fictional.

By the 1950s, a new medium was dawning that would change the world.

Television was creating cultural changes, among them new forms of entertainment such as weekly dramatic tales of America in the Old West.

The everyday world at the time was awash with real-life, post-war heroes, quiet men and women of war-time valor who lived just down the street on your block and spoke nothing of their heroism after returning home from war to settle peacefully into family life. Even the American presidents of the time, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, were decorated war heroes.

As post-war Baby Boomers, we their children played, ran and jumped around in a world literally saved by that generation, blissfully unaware of what they had done for us.

We watched Westerns like Maverick with the likeable gambling rogue James Garner, The Lone Ranger with the righteous and upright Clayton Moore, Bonanza with the elder Lorne Greene sternly guiding his impetuous TV sons of the Ponderosa Ranch, Rawhide, the cattle drive where Clint Eastwood got his start and The Rifleman with Chuck Connors, a shoot-em-up Western worthy of its name but with an endearing story of father and son at its core. Countless other Westerns littered the television dial, a reflection of the real-world heroes from the generation that came before us.

James Arness, who recently passed away at the age of 88, was such a hero, not only on the TV screen but also in real life.

During World War II at the Battle of Anzio, Arness was shot in the leg while testing water depths with his 6-foot, 7-inch frame, actions for which he was later awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

On screen, he cast a giant figure, bringing the fictional Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City to us for 20 years, longer than any other dramatic television series and longer still than the untamed Wild West era itself.

By 1959, there were 30 Westerns on the air, with even more to come in the following decade. Of all the television dramas of the
time, none was more popular than Gunsmoke, with a supporting cast of Milburn Stone as Doc, Amanda Blake as Kitty and Ken Curtis as the comical but capable deputy Festus Hagen. Dennis Weaver as Chester had preceded Festus' run as the deputy. Weaver, tall and with the looks of a leading man, was reportedly made to walk with his famed limp by using a prosthetic leg wrap so as to help distinguish him from Matt Dillon, although no one was likely to mistake big Jim Arness for anyone other than the marshal of Dodge City. Ironically, it was Arness whose war wounds from Anzio left him with real-life leg problems so that it was sometimes difficult for him to mount a horse without pain.


The gunplay and chase scenes of Gunsmoke were tense and exciting to a kid, but as I got older, I began to appreciate what was at the heart of the series-Old West tales of everyday people engaged in the very problems we all face in our own lives today-a discouraged farmer facing drought, a widower losing custody of his daughter, an expectant mother on a dangerous journey, a school teacher fighting for compulsory education of children, along with a host of life-like characters such as ranchers, cowboys and even a schemer or two, all played by some of the best actors of the day.

"The writer who created this whole concept,"Arness told the American Archive of Television of the show's origins, "which was to do not a shoot-em-up type Western, but a much more of a character study show, much more this term adult western came in and was overused, but the fact is, that's what it was, because almost every Western series that had been on television, you had Hopalong Cassidy and these other folks who were slanted mainly at the kids."

The list of guest stars on Gunsmoke is a Who's Who of Hollywood greats-Dennis Hopper, Robert Urich, Mariette Hartley, Anne Francis, Alan Hale, Angie Dickinson, Forrest Tucker, Robert Culp, William Devane, Rose Marie, Joyce Van Patton and Joan Van Ark, to name just a small portion of them. Some were just learning the acting craft at the time and others were more established, but they all helped keep Gunsmoke on the air and at the top of the ratings for decades. In fact, Arness played the role of Matt Dillon well into five decades, including two made-for-television Gunsmoke movies in the 1980s and '90s.

More importantly, James Arness and Gunsmoke have left an imprint on The Western Online. My banner painting across the top of this site was influenced by the weekly Gunsmoke intro of the 1970s that featured James Arness on the winning end of a gunfight, a scene which opens with his hand hovering over his gun. Significantly, if you scratch just beneath the surface of many of our writers' short stories on The Western Online, you find characters inspired, intentionally or not, by a protagonist much like Matt Dillon - physically strong, mentally sharp and always fair and just.

"He hated violence," Arness said of his signature character. "If Matt Dillon had to shoot somebody, you'd cut around to him. You could see that he just hated to have to do that and he felt a sort of revulsion over it. That's something that hadn't been done much up to that point."

James Arness, the real-life war hero, instilled these heroic qualities into a Western character that stood the test of time for nearly 40 years - a towering legacy from a towering man.

Works Cited:


Michael T. Pizzolato is the Associate Editor and Art Director of The Western Online.

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