James Arness, who played Marshall Matt Dillon on TV’s “Gunsmoke” for twenty years, died today. He was 88.
“Gunsmoke,” one of the first so-called “adult Westerns” on television, debuted in 1955 and ran until 1975. And I was a huge fan. Before “Gunsmoke,” I’d followed every other Western star and series I could find — Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, Zorro, and Johnny Mack Brown. And before TV (yep, before TV) I was a big fan of radio’s “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders.” Mom was honor-bound to step outside and call me in so I wouldn’t miss it.
The heyday of realistic TV Westerns — without glamorous horses, singing cowboys, etc. — pretty much started and ended with Jim Arness and “Gunsmoke.” I never missed it. Or any of the other Westerns that came and went during that period. “Bonanza” and “Maverick” come to mind first. And of course “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” (Steve McQueen was and still is near the top of my list of all-time favorites.) I can’t speak for anyone else, but when you grow up in Oklahoma and you’re crazy about cowboys and horses and all things Western, all this is a no-brainer. Westerns are your heritage, your culture, your bedrock. Or at least, that’s the way I saw it.
Funny, until just now, reading Wikipedia, I’d not realized that one reason the era of the TV Western ended was parental objection to the violence. Amazing, isn’t it, that I turned out to be such a peace-loving person when I was steeped in all that violence …
In any case, thank you, Jim Arness, for having been such a memorable part of my early years.