Previous Post
Next Post

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.

Previous Post
Next Post


  1. In its prime, Gunsmoke was the most adult of the TV westerns, so it was never a personal favorite. Arness was a different story. He had a great speaking voice. I liked him in “Big Jim McLain” where he supported John Wayne. He was great as the intergallactic carrot in “The Thing” where he didn’t have a single line, and he was strong as the killer of giant ants in “Them.” What I found most striking about Arness is that even wearing a suit, he still looked like the cowboy from Gunsmoke, while Peter Graves (Arness’ brother) could wear a cowboy outfit and still look like the spy from Mission Impossible.

    All in all, I think that Arness was one of the best of the B-list actors.

  2. I miss him and old Festus. You figure those two ever got up with Miss Kitty and ruffled her feathers?

  3. I remember an episode where Matt was coming off being awake for three days on the trail, and all he wanted was sleep. He laid down at the office, and there was a kid who caused turmoil in Dodge all day, and kept waking him up.

    Typical Matt Dillon, he kept giving the kid chances to do better, but the kid wouldn’t do it, culminating in being taken to the woodshed at the end of the show by Matt. What a thrashing.

    Metaphor for what we need to do as a country, I think.

  4. Gunsmoke I agree was the best Western ever. I enjoyed watching it back in the
    1960’s and 70’s. Matt Dillon with his .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver
    embraced the same historic and moral principle as does my favorite handgun: the
    K-Frame Smith and Wesson Model 19 and 66 “stainless” .357 Combat Magnum
    revolvers. The basic principle being that the classic sixshooter still defines law,
    security, and protection for the honest autonomous citizen. I’d still like to know
    what kind of double barrel shotgun it was kept (stashed) behind the bar in the
    Longbranch Saloon. I don’t know if it was a 10 or 12 gauge; this shotgun I recall
    had rabbit ear “outside” hammers and about 20″ barrels. Perhaps it was Belgian
    with Damascus twist barrels? Yes, we will all miss Gunsmoke and Matt Dillon.

  5. Hi my name is Jacqueline and I just wanted to drop you a quick note here instead of calling you. I came to your James Arness. R.I.P. – The Truth About Guns page and noticed you could have a lot more traffic. I have found that the key to running a successful website is making sure the visitors you are getting are interested in your niche. There is a company that you can get targeted visitors from and they let you try their service for free for 7 days. I managed to get over 300 targeted visitors to day to my site. Check it out here:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here