James Arness, who played Marshall Matt Dillon on the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, died on June 3, 2011. He was 88 years old. Arness also starred in the made-for-TV movie Gunsmoke, Return to Dodge in 1987, and four other Gunsmoke movies filmed in the 1990s.
Gunsmoke originally ran for nine years, from 1952 to 1961, on CBS Radio and William Conrad was the voice of Matt Dillon. John Wayne was the original choice for the role of Matt Dillon, but he turned the offer down because he did not want to commit to a weekly television series. Wayne recommended James Arness for the job and Wayne also introduced the first show with, according to IMDb: "When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke", I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He's a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star. And now I'm proud to present "Gunsmoke."
Matt Dillon's character is the sheriff of Dodge City, Kansas. Dillon was actually believed to be a compilation of various U.S. Marshals who served in Dodge City during its Wild West years. In the CBS Radio shows, Marshall Matt Dillon often referred to famous people from the American West, including Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, and claimed to be friends with Wild Bill Hickok, who also served as a lawman in various Kansas cities in the Old West. In fact, Wyatt Earp actually served as an Assistant Marshall in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876. There is speculation that the character of Matt Dillon was based on a compilation of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and other famous Wild West lawmen.
Actor Rodd Redwing was the man who was shot at the beginning of each Gunsmoke show. I blogged about Rodd Redwing on Wild West History on Sunday, March 22, 2009. Redwing was considered one of the "fastest guns in the West." Redwing, 1904-1971, was a full-blooded Chickasaw, who appeared in more than eighty movies and television shows, including Key Largo, Elephant Walk, and, of course, every television episode of Gunsmoke. He made his film debut in 1931 in The Squaw Man. He also coached James Arness on the use of guns, as well as Henry Fonda, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Jerry Lewis, Glenn Ford, Alan Ladd, and other Hollywood greats in the use of guns, knives, tomahawks and whips. Redwing was able to hit a target at twenty feet in two-tenths of a second. One of his most famous stunts was tossing a knife at a target while at the same time reaching for his gun, drawing, and firing to make a bullet hole for the knife to stick into when it reached its mark.
In the Dodge City, Kansas Boot Hill Museum there is a tribute to the Gunsmoke television series that includes set decorations from the show, photographs of the various actors and actresses, Sam the bartender's vest and Miss Kitty's dress. No doubt, there will soon be a tribute to Marshall Matt Dillon in the museum, as well.
Farewell, Marshall Dillon, and goodbye James Arness. You will be missed in the American Wild West.