Friday, June 03, 2011

James Arness, R.I.P.

Actor James Arness in a title card for Gunsmoke. The TV legend died early today at the age of 88 (CBS photo via Wikipedia).

Someone over at Free said it best; if America was still entertained by shows like "Gunsmoke" and not the "Real Housewives of New Jersey," this country would be in far better shape.

Sadly, we won't see another show like that iconic western, which ran for 20 years (1955-1975) on CBS. And we won't see another TV star like James Arness, who starred as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillion during its entire run. Mr. Arness passed away earlier today in Los Angeles, only 13 months after his younger brother, actor Peter Graves.

It's been almost 40 years since Gunsmoke left the airwaves, but during its heyday, the show was appointment television for more than 40 million Americans every week. And Arness was perfectly cast as Dillion, the laconic lawman who, in the words of The New York Times, "never got the girl, did not love his horse, wore only one gun and fired it reluctantly, usually drawing last but shooting straightest in dusty street duels."

The story of Arness and the show is classic Americana. Gunsmoke actually began as a radio drama. CBS founder William S. Paley, the very embodiment of urbane sophistication, asked his programmers to develop a frontier version of the popular Phillip Marlowe radio series. But the project was shelved when the actor selected to play lawman Mark Dillon (Howard Culver) couldn't get out of his contract on another radio serial. CBS resurrected the idea in 1952, hiring producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston to develop the series.

MacDonnell and Meston envisioned a "western for adults," with an emphasis on realism. Radio's Matt Dillion (William Conrad) was depicted as a lonely man, hardened by a tough life on the frontier. Doc Adams, played by Howard McNear--best known as Floyd the Barder on TV's The Andy Griffith Show--was an alcoholic and something of a quack. Georgia Ellis, who portrayed bar maid Kitty Russell, described her character as a "prostitute, pure and simple."

As a radio serial, Gunsmoke was a critical and ratings success for CBS. So, it was only natural that the network would adapt it for the relatively new medium of television. While the radio cast was experienced (and talented), CBS had doubts about their suitability for the small screen. William Conrad was already struggling with obesity, and the network quickly rejected him as TV's Matt Dillon. Other actors from the radio series were granted perfunctory auditions and passed over as well.

By comparison, James Arness was hardly a household name in 1955. He caught the acting bug after serving in the Army in World War II (he was badly wounded at the invasion of Anzio) and working as a disc jockey and radio announcer in his native Minnesota. Arness arrived in Hollywood in 1948 and found work in science fiction films (including a memorable turn in The Thing). But his big break came when John Wayne cast him in Big Jim McLain, and signed Arness to a contract with his production company.

It was also Wayne who recommended Arness for the role of Matt Dillon. Hollywood legend says The Duke was approached about starring in the series, but Gunsmoke's original producer and director, Charles Marquis Warren, said Arness won the role on the strength of a previous film role. Wayne encouraged his protege to take the part and took the unusual step of filming an introduction for the series, and touting Arness, predicting "he'll be a big star."

While the introduction was pure hype, it was also prophetic. Gunsmoke proved even more successful on television than on radio, reaching #1 in the ratings by 1957 and remaining there through the 1961 season. Arness became a huge star, and the series made him a wealthy man. By the early 1960s, Gunsmoke was being filmed by "The Arness Production Company," though Arness (characteristically) never claimed an on-screen producer's credit. When CBS bought him out a few years later, Arness became a millionaire.

And, in an era when many TV stars (such as Richard Chamberlain and Pernell Roberts) hungered for movie stardom, Arness remained loyal to his show, appearing in all of the series' 633 episodes. Not surprisingly, the actor became synonymous with the role, though Arness did appear in later shows, most notably the ABC mini-series How the West Was Won.

While Dillon's character dominated the series, Arness (by all accounts) did not have a "star complex," and enjoyed playing practical jokes on his fellow cast members. He was also supportive of his co-stars. When Buck Taylor (who played gunsmith Newly O'Brien in the series) asked for a higher salary, the network declined. When Arness found out about it, he told a network executive he "didn't want to interrupt his vacation to bitch [at CBS] about the situation." Taylor quickly got his raise.

Arness also encouraged Gunsmoke's writers to shift the focus away from Dillon's character and let other actors share the spotlight. This led to some of the series best episodes, and gave Arness a break from the weekly grind. But regardless of his amount of screen time, Arness insisted on quality, and the show consistently delivered. For a TV series, Gunsmoke offered characters that were remarkably multi-layered and complex, tackling issues that included mental illness, racism and child abuse.

It made for great television and Mr. Arness was instrumental to its success. Gunsmoke is easily the greatest TV western of all time, and Matt Dillon ranks high in the medium's pantheon of unforgettable characters, thanks to the work of a former infantryman from Minnesota. CBS is reportedly working on a "prequel" for Gunsmoke, encouraged by the success of its recent revival of Hawaii 5-0. At some point in the near future, viewers will get a chance to see someone else in the role of Marshal Dillon. No matter how talented that actor might be, he faces an unenviable, (some would say impossible) task.
ADDENDUM: Watching later episodes of Gunsmoke, viewers will notice that Arness runs with a slight limp, the results of his war wounds. Walking point on a night patrol at Anzio, Arness was hit by German machine-gun fire that shattered the bone in his lower right leg. The injury left that leg about 5/8 of an inch shorter than the left, and pain that afflicted the actor for the rest of his life. Mr. Arness was discharged from the Army in January 1945, with a $56 a month disability pension.

Also, as many fans of the series know, Gunsmoke narrowly avoided cancellation in the mid-1960s, when its ratings began to slip. The series was saved largely through the replacement of producer Phillip Leacock, and the intervention of CBS Chairman William Paley. A network talent executive was instructed to send letters to the cast, informing them of the series' cancellation. She asked if Mr. Paley had approved the move. No, she was told, but that was a mere formality. Knowing that Gunsmoke was one of Paley's favorites, she put the letters in a desk drawer and decided to wait. Paley reversed the programming department's decision, and Gunsmoke remained on the air for another decade.

Finally, the TV version of Gunsmoke retained much of the realism of the radio series, offering some surprising visual details for the 1950s and 60s. In an era when network censors dictated that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo sleep in separate beds, Gunsmoke viewers occasionally saw Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty descending the stairs at The Long Branch, or a bar girl leading a cowboy to an upstairs bedroom. Those scenes left little doubt that Miss Russell's watering hole was also a House of Ill Repute, but (amazingly) the censors never caught on.


Nancy Reyes said...

Small trivia on Arness: John Wayne was one of the few actors who didn't mind working with someone taller than he was, so they worked together on a few films.

So when the producers approached Wayne with the Gunsmoke role, Wayne suggested Arness for the role.

In those days, integrity was important, and even his refusal to marry Miss Kitty was because he figured he would be killed and wanted to protect her...

Anonymous said...

James Arness was also a famous surfer whose son Rolf won the World championship in 1970. I had the luck to be in Hawaii for the auction of his surfboard collection a couple of years ago. Jim, by all accounts, loved nothing more than pulling his camper up to the beach at San Onofre and surfing with his sons and friends.

doug denslowe said...

I watch Gunsmoke daily on the Western channel by Starz/Encore.I also watch the Real Housewives of New Jersey.I think both shows are a fictional account of life in America.

Steve B. said...

Arness might have been modest enough to not mind men taller than him, to not be arrogant over the other actors, to be progressive enough to have the kinds of suggestive scenes mentioned in the post, and to not need himself credited as producer after he became one. But, and I emphasize this a pure hearsay, I once knew a man named Frances Polifroni (Now dead) His wife was Pamela (Pam) Polifroni and she was the casting director for Gunsmoke. I was told that she'd reported that Arness was a real bigot and refused to have any Blacks on set. I think that meant as an actor or as a crew member.

timothy said...

James Arness was what every American man should be in every way.He was a great father,husband,citizen and WW 2 hero.
Jim always made sure that the underdog,disabled{myself}and minority in those days was treated fairly.
James was color-blind and did not know how to be a racist.
The bigots and racists can be black,brown,yellow,red or white.Think about it.I grew up in a ghetto.

Steve B. said...

I wonder if there is a way to square what his casting director said with your experience of him, Timothy. I don't know. Or are you speaking from experience? Were you on Gunsmoke or involved in its production?

Unknown said...

One of the better episodes during Gunsmoke's later years featured three black nuns. Another was built around a group of former slaves heading to Oregon; they found a wounded Matt (how many times did that happen in the series?) and hid him from the outlaws who were trying to finish him off.

If Arness was truly a bigot, he would have vetoed those scripts--and he had the clout to make it happen. I've never heard anything that would remotely support such a claim.

Steve B. said...

I haven't shared the casting director's remarks on Arness for years but am glad this exchange has broadened the perspective and shown me another side--not that I know for sure what you say is true, Nate, but I have no reason to doubt it and it certainly is reason enough to stop what probably is an untrue rumor. Too bad some black man who saw my remarks here wrote me an angry email and cussed me out for being such a white bigot. The discussion here has been much more civil. I appreciate it.

Rebecca said...

As the daughter-in-law of Pam Polifroni (and Francis Polifroni), and having shared this commentary with her, this comment shouldn't be attributed to her by any means. Mr. Arness was a lovely man, he never struck her as a racist and this kind of gossip is simply not called for given that she did cast black actors on that show. She cast as directed, and there were black people cast. That's just simply fact. If you want to know why more were not cast, you need to address the writers and production - not the casting director.