Sunday, June 5, 2011


A week ago we were wishing Jim Arness a happy 88th birthday, and now we’re saying farewell. To those of us who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Jim simply was Matt Dillon. Arness was to Western television what John Wayne was to the Western movie – and it’s no coincidence that it was Wayne who urged Arness, against his instincts, to take the role in GUNSMOKE, and even filmed an introduction to the show’s pilot, touting Jim as the ideal choice for the role.

But James Arness was more than just the personification of the frontier marshal. He was a man, a real man. He grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, went to war, fought in the infantry and had his leg shattered at Anzio. In addition to the badge he wore on TV, he also wore a Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

When he came to Hollywood, he appeared in Westerns, but also war movies, comedies, sword and sandal programmers, pirate pictures and sci-fi movies before he won his career-defining role. He also discovered surfing, one of his greatest passions. He wrote about his remarkable life, with James E. Wise, Jr., in JAMES ARNESS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.

I never met James Arness, although as a ten-year-old kid visiting the real Dodge City, Kansas, I searched the town desperately for him (I did eat breakfast at a restaurant which purported to be Miss Kitty’s, but none of her girls were there). So I spoke to a few people who knew Jim and had worked with him.

Earl Holliman remembers, “I did three or four GUNSMOKES, but most of the time I had little if anything to do with Jim. You know the format of that show. Jim Arness would be there in the beginning, and say, ‘Boys, I’m riding into Where-ever,’ and you didn’t see him again until the last frame of the thing, when he rode up and said, ‘Hey, hold it!’ or shot the villain. But I did the first TV movie, RETURN TO DODGE, and on that I did work closely with him in some scenes – in fact I think I died in his arms. He was a nice, down to earth guy, and not at all carried away by his fame. I never talked to anyone who didn’t like him.

“Long before I really knew him, early in my career, when I was trying to flesh out my talent to some degree, I was taking dance lessons, and I ran into him in the little dressing area. I was going into a private session, and he was going into a dance class with a bunch of really young people, and this was really early-on in GUNSMOKE. What he was doing, and a very admirable thing, he was broadening his horizons by making himself more agile. He wanted to work on his movement. To see this great big guy in dance class with a bunch of late teenagers! I admired him for it.”

Morgan Woodward guested on GUNSMOKE more than any other actor – remarkable considering he wasn’t on once in the first decade. “I couldn’t do GUNSMOKE because of a casting director that I’d had a run-in with at a different studio, so he would never invite me in. In 1965 he died, unfortunately for him, fortunately for me. They brought on a new casting director, who knew my work, and I started doing GUNSMOKE. And although it was an unwritten law that no actor could do more than one GUNSMOKE a year, I did nineteen in ten years. I worked with Jim Arness often, very often. He was certainly one of the nicest men that I had ever met – not just in show business, but anywhere. Just an absolutely wonderful gentleman and a great friend. The series ended in 1975, and we’ve remained friends since that time. I talked to him two or three weeks ago, and (his death) didn’t come as a surprise because I’d seen him some months ago, and he was in terrible shape, and I think he knew the end was near.

“Jim knew that I was a pilot, and he started asking me questions about being a pilot, and said he’d thought about taking flying lessons. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, Jim. I’ve seen the shooting schedule, and you’re going to be finished right after lunch, and so am I, so let’s just head out to the airport, and get in my plane and see how you like it.’ Well, we just had a marvelous time. I had a surplus Army airplane that you could push the canopy back and let the breeze blow on you, and he just absolutely loved it. The next morning I went by the aero shop and bought him a private pilot’s course and gave it to him, and said, ‘Okay pal, here you go: take off!’ Jim went on to get a commercial license and was checked off in twin-engine aircraft. Quite a pilot, he did very well.

“He was in the infantry in the war, that’s where he was injured, at Anzio. Got caught in a machine-gun fire, and spent several months in the hospital. In GUNSMOKE, if he had to walk in the street they tried to shoot it in the morning, because by noon he was really limping pretty badly. One leg was shorter than the other, and it was almost like he swung his right leg.”

Joe Don Baker, who guested twice on GUNSMOKE recalls, “I had just come from New York when I was working with him. I’d been studying acting for five and a half years. So I was used to people preparing before they’d do a scene. You know, you’d go off and talk to yourself, get yourself in the mood. (On GUNSMOKE) we’d be on the set, they’d start the countdown to action – rolling, sound -- and he would be telling jokes and just talking about anything, right up until they said ‘action.’ Then he would ‘click,’ and he would be Matt Dillon, he would just jump into the Matt Dillon character, just from telling jokes to throwing down on somebody. In a fraction of a second he’d be from telling jokes to doing Matt Dillon. Another thing I remember, after a scene was over, he’d just reach down and unbuckle his gunbelt, let it drop, but by that time the prop man was behind him, and he’d reach over and snatch it as soon as it started dropping. Pretty cool! They had this routine down, he and the prop man.

“One time we were getting ready to do a scene, and he didn’t know what part I was playing, so he picked me out as the bad guy and was jumping down on me like Matt Dillon. Until somebody said, ‘No Jim, he’s the good guy.’ He said, ‘Okay, which one’s the bad?’ He was just a nice guy, and I really liked working with him.”

I asked Rob Word, Western writer and producer, and one of the Founding Fathers of the Golden Boot Award, what his memories of Jim were. He emailed back:

(l to r: Rob Word, James Arness, John Mantley, Bruce Boxleitner, Morgan Woodward, Jim Byrnes)

Lots of stories and thoughts about Jim. Did you know he LOVED do-nuts? At 6'7" I guess he never had to worry about his weight!

"Gunsmoke" set a record as the longest running dramatic television series with the most episodes. Producing 39 episodes a year when it premiered on September 10, 1955, "Gunsmoke's" total of 635 episodes leaves "Law & Order's" measly 22 episodes a year standing in the dust! Ain't no show ever gonna topple that total.

When James Arness got his Golden Boot Award in 1989, we had Victor French as the presenter. Well, ya shoulda been there! That night we were also honoring Fess Parker, Cesar Romero, George Montgomery, Beverly Garland, Guy Madison, Jock Mahoney and Louis L'Amour. A roundup of classic western heroes all gathered in an overstuffed banquet room filled with about 900 fans and 40 more western stars, writers and producers in the audience.

Pat Buttram was our always hysterical Master of Ceremonies and everyone knew the evening was gonna go long. Hell, we looked forward to it! We saved Big Jim's Award for last and had the irascible actor/director Victor French as his presenter. They'd worked together often and Victor really wanted to do it. Well, it was 11:30pm when Victor finally took the podium and he set a still standing record for the looooongest speech by a presenter in our 25 year history. He started out very funny, telling lots of stories about Jim's pranks on set and giving the packed house of western fans some real inside stuff, some of it off color. As he rambled on and on...the clock passed midnight and even hard core fans were beginning to eye the door.

Finally, someone had the good sense to remind Victor to "cue the clips" and to usher Victor off. Jim came out smiling and laughing to a standing ovation. The room was shaking with hoots and hollers of appreciation. Jim made a few choice comments about "ole Victor" and kept his acceptance speech short, even though he said he couldn't make up the time Victor had already appropriated. What a memorable night and what a gracious man.

Producer John Mantley was one of Jim's closet friends. They not only did three TV series together, they flew planes, fished and vacationed together. A few years ago, when John was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, we had a special dinner at my house for some of John's close friends. Of course, Jim and his wife, Janet, came. So did "Gunsmoke" veterans Morgan Woodward (he did 20 episodes as 20 different characters), Bruce Boxleitner and Jim and Toni Byrnes. When the guys started telling stories about the show, Jim's signature rollicking laugh must have triggered John Mantley's memory because it kicked in and we all had more laughs than expected. What a great time.

Jim was, and will continue to be, a hero to many generations. He can't help it. His presence on screen, especially as Marshal Matt Dillon, and the quality of the programs he chose to do, will keep him in our thoughts forever. Even now, there's so much to see of Jim on TV.

We're lucky, he's on TV Land Monday through Friday in the hour long color episodes of "Gunsmoke." While Encore's Westerns Channel runs the wonderful black and white hour long episodes and the five "Gunsmoke" TV movies. Even TCM has begun rebroadcasting Jim's fabulous mini-series "How the West Was Won" (aka "The Family McCahans") created by Jim Byrnes and produced by John Mantley, both "Gunsmoke" veterans, on Saturday mornings.

Like Matt Dillon, James Arness is a true legend.

The following message to his fans was posted on James Arness' website:

Hi friends,

I decided to write a letter to you for Janet to post on our website in the event I was no longer here.

I had a wonderful life and was blessed with so many loving people and great friends. The best part of my life was my family, especially my wife Janet. Many of you met her at Dodge City so you understand what a special person she is.

I wanted to take this time to thank all of you for the many years of being a fan of Gunsmoke, The Thing, How the West Was Won and all the other fun projects I was lucky enough to have been allowed to be a part of. I had the privilege of working with so many great actors over the years.

I was honored to have served in the army for my country. I was at Anzio during WWII and it makes you realize how very precious life is.

Thank you again for all the many letters, cards, emails and gifts we received from you over the years. You are and always have been truly appreciated.

Jim Arness


It’s been about two years since Johnny Depp agreed to play the ‘faithful Indian companion’ Tonto in Jerry Bruckheimer’s new version of THE LONE RANGER. And for two years, the name most often mentioned for the Masked Rider of the Plains has been George Clooney. Finally there’s word that the role has been cast, and the winner is (drum roll) Armie Hammer! If you don’t recognize the name you probably will know the face – you saw it twice recently, as he played both Winklevoss twins in SOCIAL NETWORK. (No word yet on whether Klinton Spilsbury will cameo as his dad) Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films and the recent semi-Western cartoon, RANGO, is set helm.


Built by cowboy actor, singer, baseball and TV entrepeneur Gene Autry, and designed by the Disney Imagineering team, the Autry is a world-class museum housing a fascinating collection of items related to the fact, fiction, film, history and art of the American West. In addition to their permenant galleries (to which new items are frequently added), they have temporary shows. The Autry has many special programs every week -- sometimes several in a day. To check their daily calendar, CLICK HERE. And they always have gold panning for kids every weekend. For directions, hours, admission prices, and all other information, CLICK HERE.


Across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, this building, once the headquarters of Lasky-Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) was the original DeMille Barn, where Cecil B. DeMille made the first Hollywood western, The Squaw Man. They have a permanent display of movie props, documents and other items related to early, especially silent, film production. They also have occasional special programs. 2100 Highland Ave., L.A. CA 323-874-2276. Thursday – Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. $5 for adults, $3 for senior, $1 for children.


This small but entertaining museum gives a detailed history of Wells Fargo when the name suggested stage-coaches rather than ATMS. There’s a historically accurate reproduction of an agent’s office, an original Concord Coach, and other historical displays. Open Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Admission is free. 213-253-7166. 333 S. Grand Street, L.A. CA.


A staggering number of western TV episodes and movies are available, entirely free, for viewing on your computer at HULU. You do have to sit through the commercials, but that seems like a small price to pay. The series available -- often several entire seasons to choose from -- include THE RIFLEMAN, THE CISCO KID, THE LONE RANGER, BAT MASTERSON, THE BIG VALLEY, ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, and one I missed from 2003 called PEACEMAKERS starring Tom Berenger. Because they are linked up with the TV LAND website, you can also see BONANZA and GUNSMOKE episodes, but only the ones that are running on the network that week.

The features include a dozen Zane Grey adaptations, and many or most of the others are public domain features. To visit HULU on their western page, CLICK HERE.


Every weekday, TV LAND airs a three-hour block of BONANZA episodes from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. They run a GUNSMOKE Monday through Thursday at 10:00 a.m., and on Friday they show two, from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m.. They're not currently running either series on weekends, but that could change at any time.


Check out your cable system for WHT, which stands for World Harvest Television. It's a religious network that runs a lot of good western programming. Your times may vary, depending on where you live, but weekdays in Los Angeles they run DANIEL BOONE at 1:00 p.m., and two episodes of THE RIFLEMAN from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.. On Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. it's THE RIFLEMAN again, followed at 2:30 by BAT MASTERSON. And unlike many stations in the re-run business, they run the shows in the original airing order. There's an afternoon movie on weekdays at noon, often a western, and they show western films on the weekend, but the schedule is sporadic.

Also, AMC has started showing two episodes of THE RIFLEMAN on Saturday mornings.

I had some other stories to run, but losing Jim Arness kind of knocked my writing schedule for a loop. It's a little after ten p.m. on Sunday, and I'm going to publish this, then finish watching GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE.

Adios Amigos!


All contents copyright June 2011 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved

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