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Friday, June 3, 2011
Chester, Miss Kitty, Marshal Dillon, and Doc -- the original cast of "Gunsmoke" in happier times.
James Arness is dead. I don't expect that will mean much to most of you -- certainly not to any twenty-somethings out there, and probably not many people at all under age fifty. He began his signature role as Marshal Dillon with "Gunsmoke" during 1955 -- two full years before my family got our first TV -- and finished up twenty years later in a world that by then had turned itself inside-out.*
It's hard to overstate the impact "Gunsmoke" (and Westerns in general) had on my generation of young television viewers. In those days, NBC, ABC, and CBS had the airwaves to themselves, and "Gunsmoke" was a colossus.** Everybody I knew watched it, and we kept on watching down through the years as cast members were replaced and the seemingly safe, simple world of the 50's gave way to a decade of violet turmoil and immense social and cultural upheaval. Through it all, "Gunsmoke" stayed the course, Marshal Dillon dispatching the evil doers of the Old West every week while dispensing object lessons in humanity and morality along the way.
I didn't stay tuned until the bitter end. After ten years of "Gunsmoke," I reached an age where television dropped far down my list of urgent priorities. There were girls, there were motorcycles, there were -- ahem -- "controlled substances," among other things to explore, and I was hungry to learn about them all. I don't know if I saw any of the last few years of "Gunsmoke," but even through all the smoke and confusion of the late 60's and early 70's, the iconic image of James Arness as the man with a badge and a gun never quite left me. Arness fully inhabited the role of Marshal Dillon -- he was everything a Law Man was supposed to be, and then some. In all the ways that mattered, he was the John Wayne of the small screen, but without the cultural/political baggage that followed Wayne through the twilight of his movie career.
He played other roles, of course, most notably the merciless monster from space in "The Thing," but it was as Marshal Dillon that he made his mark, and for which he will be remembered.
Now he's gone, having carved out a solid career and a quiet life in a town that has chewed up so many lesser souls over the years. I never had the chance to meet him, unfortunately, although I often work on the studio lot where "Gunsmoke" was made. Some of the real old-timers around the lot were on the show, and in talking with them, I've never heard a bad word about James Arness.
In a town that loves to dish the dirt on anyone and everyone, that's something.
Thanks for the memories, Marshal. Rest in peace...
Addendum: LA Time’s TV critic Robert Lloyd wrote a brief but deep appreciation of James Arness for Saturday’s paper. It’s really good, and very much worth reading.
* I was a fan before we got that TV, having listened to the radio show of the same name for as long as I could remember. Saturday mornings were good, as "Gunsmoke" ran back-to-back with the radio version of "Have Gun, Will Travel," which later made for another good televised Western starring the inimitable Richard Boone.
** Hard though it may be to believe, there was no "Oprah," "Jerry Springer," "Maury Povitch," or professional bass fishing on TV back then -- and in that, we might have been better off. Then again, there was no "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," or "The Wire" either, so I guess the last 55 years haven't been a total waste of television viewing time.