Gunsmoke creators Norman Macdonnell and John Meston had a strong understanding of what made strong Western storytelling. Additionally, they created a cast of characters that audiences around the world continue to connect with. Gunsmoke lead U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) served as the hero of the story, but they occasionally felt the need to knock him down a peg for a very specific reason.
Much like any other television role, Arness had to grow comfortable with playing Matt on Gunsmoke. It took some time for him to acquaint himself with the character fully, but he was unstoppable once he did. He knew the character inside and out, as well as when a line didn’t make sense for him to say.
Gunsmoke reached unparalleled heights for Western television, especially thanks to Matt and the rest of the cast of characters. According to TV Guide, the success started to go to their heads. Television show developer Charles Marquis Warren said it reached the point where he’d hear “Arness tell me that ‘Matt Dillon wouldn’t say a line like that!’ Everybody suddenly got to be a self-appointed authority.”
Macdonnell and Meston had a secret weapon for how they carried Matt over the course of Gunsmoke. They didn’t want him to feel like the untouchable hero. Rather, the creators wanted the character to feel “human,” rather than an invincible person who never experienced real stakes.
“Well, we try to capture some of the real feeling of the West,” MacDonnell told TV Guide. “As well as something real in the people. As soon as your lead becomes a hero, you’re in trouble. Sometimes we’ll sit down and say to ourselves, ‘You know, this fellow Dillon is just getting too noble. Let’s fix him.’ So, we do. John writes a script where poor old Matt gets outdrawn and outgunned and pulls every dumb trick in the book. It makes him, and us, human.”
Gunsmoke made significant changes to Matt between the radio and television iterations. Part of it had to do with the change in medium, which required more dialogue on the radio show. However, Arness also brought some of his own charm and aesthetic to Matt that allowed him to be a unique character of his own. The actor stood at an astonishing 6’7″, which made him significantly larger than many of his co-stars, including the villains.
However, the differences didn’t end there. Gunsmoke also saw Matt become a man of fewer words. He was determined to carry out justice to keep Dodge City safe, as well as those he held dear. Nevertheless, he would use lethal force when he found it necessary. Arness continued to develop a strong understanding of the character over the years, playing him for 20 seasons and five made-for-TV movies.
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