‘Gunsmoke’: What Was James Arness Like Behind the Scenes?

Marshal Matt Dillon was the central figure of the “Gunsmoke” series as well as the movies. In fact, he and Miss Kitty are the most memorable characters in the show. Their interactions really helped to develop the lawman over the course of the show’s run.

On “Gunsmoke,” Marshall Dillon was a hard man who wouldn’t hesitate to resort to violence if the situation called for it. At the same time, he was fair to those who came through Dodge City. Dillon was the closest thing that television audiences could get to one of the classic characters played by iconic western hero John Wayne. This was partially due to the fact that the man behind Matt Dillon, James Arness, was friends with and looked up to Wayne.

But, what was James Arness like behind the scenes? His wife, Janet Arness, and frequent co-star Bruce Boxleitner discussed that in a 2017 interview.

James Arness Behind the Scenes of ‘Gunsmoke’

As the star of “Gunsmoke,” James Arness brought Matt Dillon to life. However, he didn’t inject much of his personality into the iconic lawman. In fact, according to Boxleitner, Arness had a great sense of humor.

About this, he said, “I always knew it was a great day because I could hear him coming from his trailer. And, someone’s either just told a very dirty joke or something because he would have this high cackling laugh that would make you laugh,” he then deferred to Arness’ wife. Janet Arness agreed with him, adding that James’ laugh was contagious.

Later in the interview, Bruce said that the star’s sense of humor was a constant on the set. Between takes, James would sit with the rest of the cast and crew and joke around. He helped make shows feel like a communal experience.

Boxleitner went on to say that his “Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice,” co-star was a friend and mentor to him. However, Arness was very shy. So, he didn’t see himself as a mentor. Furthermore, he never sat down with his co-star to verbally teach him things. Instead, Arness taught by example. Boxleitner went on to say that it wasn’t just his acting chops that Arness helped with. He looked to Arness to see what it meant to be a television star both on and off the set.

Both Bruce and Janet agree that James Arness wasn’t much like his “Gunsmoke” character. On the other hand, he was a lot like his “How the West Was Won” character, Zeb Macahan. The mountain man was funnier and a little more “salty,” than Matt Dillon. So, Matt Dillon made James Arness a household name but Zeb Macahan let audiences see more of the real man behind the iconic characters.

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