Appreciation: James Arness, 1923-2011
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In his size -- he was 6-foot-7 -- and his centeredness, James Arness suggested John Wayne, to whose production company he was under contract before he became the star of “Gunsmoke.” For 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, Arness, who died Friday at the age of 88, played Marshal Matt Dillon in what, along with “Law & Order,” is the longest-lived drama on American television. There was also in Arness something of the other tall men of the range, actors like James Stewart and Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea; and if he lacked their foregrounded complexity, their implicit darkness and latent violence -- there was a lot of “noir” in the postwar Western -- these were not things his role demanded, or which, indeed, could have reasonably sustained a character over two decades. Matt Dillon was not battling inner demons, making amends for past wrongs, or out to revenge wrongs done to him; indeed, he was for all intents and purposes a man without a past.
Like his sound-alike brother Peter Graves, the Mr. Phelps of “Mission: Impossible,” Arness projected an air of inborn authority. Matt Dillon was not so much the subject of “Gunsmoke” as the solid rock against which lesser mortals -- flawed, broken, bad, searching -- swirled and crashed or clung, a bulwark of reassurance and capability and rectitude, a law not unto himself, but, as it were, a self unto the law. Although “Gunsmoke” was conceived as a thoughtful, adult drama, Arness’ Dillon was also close kin to child-friendly cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, good-humored heroes whose unassailable purity of heart was taken as read. (Oddly, or perhaps not, the TV lawman Arness most recalls to me is Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor.)
Arness played other parts in his career, including two post-'Gunsmoke’ TV series, the short-lived detective series “McClain’s Law” in the early ‘80s and the less short-lived “How the West Was Won” in the late ‘70s. (That he was, unrecognizably, the monster in the 1951 “The Thing from Another World” is widely known movie trivium.) But to rate him as an actor is almost beside the point, so completely and inextricably does he belong to a single character. He was in his early 30s when he took on the role -- which had been originated on radio by William Conrad, who was the wrong shape to play it on TV -- and in his 50s when the series was canceled. But he was in his 70s when he last played Matt Dillon, in the 1994 “Gunsmoke” TV movie “One Man’s Justice.” There were several of these films, which play off the “gunfighters at twilight” theme that Clint Eastwood was already exploring; the mileage suits and does not diminish him, and one gets a hint of the messier character that may have always lived within the well-kempt man of the series.
Still, while it may be that Arness was born to play Dillon, you do not keep a character alive and interesting across five decades without some application of real art; it takes substance to keep goodness from becoming blandness, from growing tiresome with time. Could any other actor have carried that weight as long, with as much grace and as little groaning? Maybe. But this one did.
-- Robert Lloyd