Gunsmoke actor James Arness served as the face of the Western television show for quite some time. He continues to represent the show alongside the original cast, including Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Milburn Stone. They regularly looked at their fan letters to see how they enjoyed the show and their character arcs. Arness once admitted which Gunsmoke cast member actually got the most fan mail, and it’s not him.
Arness played the lead character of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke for all 20 seasons between 1955 and 1975. Stone was the only other actor to star on the show as long, while Blake came in close with a 19-season run. As a result, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that Arness’ Matt was the most popular character among its fans.
However, Weaver left the cast in season 9 to explore other projects in his career. He enjoyed working on the Western television show, but it started to feel a tad stale. Therefore, the production had to find someone to fulfill the role of Matt’s loyal assistant. As a result, they added Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), but he wasn’t the only new character to join the cast. In fact, one would become the most popular in the cast.
In 1962, Burt Reynolds became a cast member as the good-looking Quint Asper. He first appeared in season 8, where he crossed paths with Matt when he was killing white men along with his mother’s tribe. Quint’s goal was to avenge his father, but the marshal ultimately saw something special in him and incorporated him into life in Dodge City as their blacksmith.
Arness’ book, James Arness: An Autobiography, pointed out that Reynolds earned a strong response from Gunsmoke fans. He “bared his chest” in his introductory episode, which was when CBS got 4,000 fan letters for the new actor within a week’s time.
Arness wrote that most Gunsmoke mail always went to him prior to Reynolds joining the show. The cast used to take a seat around the table and read the letters aloud to one another, but when the new actor came aboard, they listened to his instead of Arness’ because “they outnumbered all the others.” He noted that many of the fan letters included photographs of women.
Reynolds only stayed with Gunsmoke for a short time, but he appreciated the memories he made with Arness and the rest of the cast. Stone convinced him to pull the trigger on pursuing his movie career, which was starting to take off. It was the right move, as he would become a major heartthrob and a significant Hollywood star.
According to SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas’ book, Gunsmoke, Reynolds called working on the show “the happiest years of my life.” He loved working with Arness and Blake, while he referred to Stone “like a father.”
Arness recalled seeing Reynolds off Gunsmoke with well wishes. He understood his co-star’s reasons for leaving the show, but he remained “sorry” to see him leave the cast after proving to be the “right fit” for both the part and the set environment.
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