For as long as I can remember there was Matt Dillon—and not the marginal actor with the same name. I refer to the iconic TV lawman that made the streets of Dodge City Kansas safe. The frontier world of 50s and early 60s TV westerns required a very believable tough guy as a lead character. At 6’7″, James Arness was born to play the role. John Wayne knew it and recommended him for the job. . .
Before he was a small screen legend, James Arness fought for his country. Arness saw action at Anzio, where he was wounded by enemy fire. He received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (with three bronze battle stars), the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Whether or not this experience lent authenticity to Arness’ portrayal, Gunsmoke was arguably the best TV western of all time. Every week, Dillon dispensed justice to ethically-challenged bad guys. How it was dispensed was up to them. Straight up or slung over the saddle—the decision was up to the villains. Any attempt to out-shoot Matt Dillon would be their last decision.
We used to face down Matt in front of the TV every week at the start of the program. We would never match his speed in the opening credits. You don’t outdraw your childhood heroes. We would die on the street every week and then we would watch the show. It was reward enough to know that we died at the hands of a true legend like Matt Dillon.
Every impression of James Arness seems to point toward a very likable and principled man that was a real-life embodiment of his TV persona. He was a family man who stayed loyal to his wife in a business where matrimonial vows seem to be a fleeting concept.
His character was a poster boy for judicious use of a weapon. Matt Dillon took his responsibility as a lawman very seriously, and only drew his weapon as a last resort. The basic weapon use principle in his TV show likely matched his military career as a rifleman under real fire.
The decision to use a weapon in either scenario was definitely not easy. But when the situations warranted their use, both TV lawman and real life soldier knew what they had to do in order to live to fight another day.
But now there will be no more battles for the big man. He’s ridden into the sunset for the last time. James Arness leaves behind a legacy of man and legend that serves as a reminder that heroes on TV can sometimes be heroes in real life.