Through It All, There was Marshal Matt Dillon
Over five decades of Gunsmoke stories, the cast evolved, and a number of characters rode out of Dodge City. Problems and storylines grew more complex—and so did the real world outside of the sets. Still, in all that time, you could always count on Marshal Matt Dillon.
Tall as a city skyscraper, but with none of the tomfoolery his stature might suggest. Sure as a sunrise—and just as much fun to watch. He truly was America’s Marshal.
Lovingly portrayed by James Arness, the Marshal appeared in each of the show’s 635 episodes. And when still more stories were ready to be told, James jumped back in the saddle to help add five films to the Gunsmoke goldmine.
A testament to telling stories over a handful of decades, Matt Dillon’s character was able to change in the ways that real people do: slowly, but surely.
A Star Is Born
Gunsmoke began as a radio series in 1952. When the decision was made to bring these nail-biting tales to television, a search began to find Dodge City its defender. Fortunately, it was as if a heavenly spotlight shined down on then-32-year-old James Arness. Famously recommended for the role by John Wayne, Arness won the role over many eager candidates—even including William Conrad, the radio voice of Marshal Matt Dillon himself.
A World War II veteran who stood at 6 foot 7 inches, James Arness was a canvas on which many stories could believably be told. Here was a man who could accurately reflect the troubles of the world because he had seen them for himself, as close as anyone could.
In short, the studio and storytellers of Gunsmoke needed a man who could take a hit—and boy could he. Over the course of the Gunsmoke stories, the Marshal was shot, knocked unconscious, stabbed, and in one instance, even poisoned.
This was a role James Arness was made to play, and getting into character hardly involved a sweeping change.
Amy Stoch, who starred alongside him in four Gunsmoke movies, detailed the simple way the Marshal went from off-duty to on.
“The first time I met him,” Amy said, “[he] had the Dillon hat on, the coat, and a pair of tennis shoes. He’s sitting in his bed chair, and he’s got his tennis shoes on, and they tell him, ‘We’re ready for you on set,’ so he takes the tennis shoes off, and puts the cowboy boots on. He walks off to his horse, and that’s all it took for him to go from Jim Arness to Matt Dillon. [He] walked to his horse, and he was the character, and we were right in the scene with him.”
As the old saying goes, if the shoe fits…
America Changed…and So Did Its Marshal
You didn’t need to be Bob Dylan to realize that times had changed in America. In the 20-year period between 1955 and 1975, the entire landscape of the country shifted dramatically. Crazes came and went. The Oval Office traded hands in the wildest of fashions. And all the while, Matt Dillon soldiered on, his methods maturing with the times.
When Gunsmoke first hit the air in black-and-white, its lawman fit the format. Always in control of his emotions, viewers rarely got a glimpse of anything but a man who was steadfast and unyielding. Coupled with a dogged ability to put the needs of his citizens before himself, this was a man audiences could respect.
Then, viewers got a man they could understand. The Marshal showed increasingly more emotion, both on his face and in his actions, as the years went by. Punches were replaced by a more patient approach to problem-solving. Second chances were handed out to those who deserved them, and the weight of carrying the town’s well-being, decade after decade, became more evident.
This shift fit with the changing world beyond the television screen. As new problems arose, new ways of dealing with them did, too. A criminal justice system that had been squarely focused on punishment became more inclined toward rehabilitation, and that same idea made its way to Dodge City.
Format. Format. Format.
From “Matt Gets It,” the premiere episode in 1955, through the middle of 1961, there were 233 half-hour black-and-white episodes of Gunsmoke. Fitting with the timeslot, character development was often left out in favor of getting a story told. After all, when there are outlaws afoot and just thirty minutes on the clock, there ain’t a lot of time for moseying around.
But starting in its seventh season, Gunsmoke moved to a full hour in format, and writers took advantage of this opportunity to further develop their leading man. With twice the time per episode, the problems facing Marshal Matt Dillon became more complex. And as situations arose that required a deeper method of analysis, viewers were able to fully appreciate the Marshal’s skills as a lawman. No longer a one-trick pony, this was a purebred palomino on full display.
“What made us different from other Westerns,” James Arness said, “was the fact that Gunsmoke wasn’t just action and a lot of shooting; they were character-study shows.”
The willingness to dive deeper into storylines sets Gunsmoke apart from many of its contemporaries and goes back to its radio roots. When you have only sound to describe a world, words take on a much deeper purpose.
On September 17, 1966, the many changes in format culminated in a final splash as the Gunsmoke world went completely in color. As a result, from seasons 12 through 20, viewers saw every expanded expression in marvelous, technicolor detail.
While we’re in that era, here’s a bit of terrific television trivia:
Did you know Gunsmoke was originally on the chopping block in 1967? Stuck in a Saturday night slot and declining in ratings, the decision was made to call it quits in Dodge City. There are a few theories on why, but no matter the reason, Gilligan’s Island was eventually scrapped instead, while Gunsmoke slid into the Skipper’s old Monday night slot.
The show continued on CBS for eight more years, becoming the longest-running Western in history. And it wasn’t done yet…
The Marshal Rides Again!
Between the show’s sensational writing and a seemingly insatiable demand for more, Gunsmoke fans were treated to one of Hollywood’s rarest gifts: the ability to grow and age alongside a character. Over the course of 20 seasons and then some, Matt Dillon went from a 32-year-old whippersnapper to a wise and weathered lawman—and we all got to witness it.
Exploration into the depth of his character crescendoed in the five made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies, produced between 1987 and 1994. Each provided an opportunity for further exploration of the Marshal and the intricate world he was entrusted to safeguard.
1990’s Gunsmoke: The Last Apache provides a remarkable example of how extensively the character evolved.
Twenty-two years after amnesia led to a romantic encounter with a young widow named Mike Yardner—the Marshal’s sole on-screen kiss—a stunning revelation emerges: a child was born. As Matt Dillon grapples with this newfound information and takes decisive action, viewers gained a profound understanding of his capacity for compassion. He had shown signs of paternal potential earlier, always extending a helping hand to younger characters. But his transition into an actual father gave audiences a more comprehensive view of the cowboy’s character. To many, he is the embodiment of true manhood, fully realized.
By venturing into unexplored emotional territories, the Gunsmoke TV movies offered a rich tapestry for storytelling, allowing Marshal Matt Dillon to truly transcend expectations.
We got to watch a man with a gun and a badge become so much more.