We lost a big man (literally) when James Arness died at the age of 88. I grew up watching Gunsmoke every week and it feels a lot like losing a member of the family.
Last month I posted here that we were in Dodge City recently and I got the chance to hang out at the Long Branch Saloon for a while. It’s part of the Boot Hill Museum complex there. I felt like the spirits of Doc, Chester and Miss Kitty were looking over my shoulder. If I was back there now, Matt would be there with them.
I’m in a group of well-published western writers and they have had a lot to say about it yesterday. A lot of tidbits were being passed around, like the fact that they originally wanted John Wayne for the role, but he declined and suggested Arness instead. Now I can’t imagine anybody else in the role.
His real name was Aurness, but he dropped the ‘U’ for show business reasons. When the war came along he wrote his draft board and asked to be drafted. He was wounded in the leg at Anzio, hospitalized for a year, and it left him with the slight limp that we all remember so well.
An intensely private man, his long time co-star Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty) said “I’ve worked with him for 16 years but I don’t really know him.” In an article that he wrote for “Persimmon Hill” Johnny Boggs reported that Arness said in a personal interview, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted it (Gunsmoke) would last that long, but I did feel right away that it was going to be a high quality show because they had a core of really good writers. The stories that we did were not just shoot-em-up and ride by westerns. It was more character study.”
One by one the members of the group recounted memories of sitting around with the family on Saturday nights and how those family memories seem strongly tied to the series. One member of the group that is a U S Marshal said Arness is one of very few non-marshals to be presented with an official badge after he did a recruitment video for the marshals service. I smiled when he said “I aspire to be half the Marshal Mr. Arness was.”
He made over 30 movies in addition to his TV career, but is most remembered for his Gunsmoke role. Happy trails, Marshal, we’ll remember you.