On September 10th, 1955, audiences tuned in to a new show to hit the airwaves. It was called Gunsmoke, a grittier, more sophisticated Western than viewers were used to. Unlike its predecessors The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, the characters were multidimensional and vulnerable, as evidenced in the Gunsmoke pilot. After being forced to draw on a bad guy, protagonist Matt Dillon is shot down in the first few minutes—an interesting, auspicious beginning for a show that would go on to become one of the longest-running prime-time dramas.
Casting for the role of Dillon was not easy. Producer and director Charles Marquis Warren jokingly offered the part to John Wayne over a drink one day. Wayne grabbed Warren by the neck and poured his triple martini over Warren’s head. (Heaven forbid a movie star appear on television! Whoever heard of such a thing?) Wayne, however, did recommend a friend and protégé for the part, and even offered to introduce the first episode. That is the story of how James Arness ultimately won the part of Matt Dillon.
Wayne and Arness had worked together previously in the film Island in the Sky and had developed a friendship. But when you consider the similarities between their lives and careers, it’s almost as if their association was destined. Today, we explore 6 resemblances between these Hollywood icons.
- They both share the same birthday, May 26th. Wayne was born in 1907 and Arness in 1923.
Both men shared physical similarities in height and build. Wayne was 6’4” and Arness was 6’7”. Since both men were also notoriously private, it’s no wonder they were described as “gentle giants.”
- Wayne and Arness each achieved star status in their early 30s. After starring in a string of B Westerns throughout the 1930s, Wayne landed the part of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach at age 32 (and the signature walk and speech pattern was born!)
Similarly, Arness got his first major role in The Thing in 1951, before he caught the attention of Wayne. At age 32, it was Gunsmoke that made him a household name.
- While both men acted in different types of films, both made their mark in the Western genre. As a star of the big screen, Wayne became the quintessential American cowboy, while Arness created an iconic television character in U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon.
- Both Wayne and Arness played cops towards the end of their career, unsuccessfully. Wayne, in response to the success of Dirty Harry, starred in McQ and Brannigan, mediocre films at best. The television show McClain’s Law was a chance for Arness to play a modern-day marshal, but it lasted only 15 episodes.
- Just like Arness was mentored by John Wayne, Arness helped to launch the career of another young actor. His name was Bruce Boxleitner, who gained popularity alongside Arness in the miniseries How the West Was Won.