Gunsmoke is the first project that most television viewers think of in response to the name James Arness. He brought U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon to life for many years and engaged with the fans at rodeos and other events. Beyond crafting the character, Arness had a smart business mind that helped make Gunsmoke the monumental success it was. This included intentionally cutting his lines for the sake of the show.
There’s no question that Gunsmoke gives the illusion that Arness’ Matt is the lead character. After all, the show is all about him fighting to bring justice to Dodge City. However, it became more of an ensemble television show that gave equal weight to other characters. This included the likes of Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty Russell, Milburn Stone’s Doc Adams, and Dennis Weaver’s Chester Goode.
Over the years, the production added more characters to the roster, especially needing to fill a void when Weaver quit the show to pursue other opportunities. Ken Curtis’ Festus Haggen, Burt Reynolds’ Quint Asper, and Buck Taylor’s Newly O’Brien were a few of those additions. Nevertheless, Arness remained on the show, regardless of his amount of screen time.
According to a 1973 interview shared by The Legacy of Gunsmoke, Arness explained that he never counted the number of scenes or lines that he had in a given episode. He understood that many big actors want to see their faces on the screen the most and hear themselves deliver the most number of lines. However, Arness also knew that what the star and the audience wanted were two separate entities entirely.
Rather, Arness limited the number of lines and scenes that he had in Gunsmoke to make the audience think that he’s there more often than he is. As a result, he intentionally gave some of his lines to other members of the cast. He attributed this business phenomenon to the differences between the mediums of television and film.
“Maybe part of the success of Gunsmoke is the fact the lead characters back off a little and give viewers a rest,” Arness said. “There is a different psychology between the theater screen and the television tube. With too much dialogue an actor can talk himself right off the air. People get tired of looking at him and listening to him. I try to do a heavy show four or five times a year. By that, I mean I will play a major figure in the story. The rest of the time, I don’t press it too much. I let the others take over.”
Arness certainly had a strong understanding of the market that Gunsmoke served. It likely played into the overall success of the adult Western television show. It became the highest-ranking show on the air for a handful of consecutive years. Viewers connected with Matt and the rest of the characters, making the show CBS’ greatest asset at the time.
Gunsmoke lasted for an incredible 20 seasons between 1955 and 1975, followed by five made-for-TV movies. The network ultimately canceled the show without any warning or notice, leaving the cast and crew in a state of shock. Nevertheless, Gunsmoke remains one of the longest-running and most admired shows to ever hit the air.
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