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Arness TV's greatest western hero

Posted: June 9, 2011 6:10 p.m.
Updated: June 10, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Matt Dillon’s dead, and the bad guys in the hereafter had better be watching their backs.

James Arness, who played Marshal Dillon in the long-running TV hit “Gunsmoke”  died last week at 88. He forever changed the face of the television western, starting in the 1950s.

Arness was a World War II hero – he landed on the Anzio beachhead – who was plagued by pain from his war injuries for the rest of his life. He headed for Hollywood after the war, and the 6-foot-7 Arness was chosen to play the U. S. marshal in a new series.

His friend, John Wayne, turned down the role but recommended Arness.

It was a perfect choice.

With TV westerns now only a distant memory from a couple decades ago – insipid sitcoms having booted them out of the prime-time lineup – we can still find Gunsmoke in syndication, complete with Matt and Festus and Kitty.

Today’s young viewers, if they even know what Gunsmoke is, would shun it as a throwback, a salve for old fogeys’ entertainment aches and pains. And indeed, Gunsmoke is hopelessly out of tune with 21st century entertainment.

Movies and TV shows today need plenty of cursing, bed hopping and villains who aren’t really portrayed as villains; we’re encouraged to see their “soft side.” Gunsmoke, on the other hand, embodied the simple premise that good wins out over evil in the end.

The show didn’t fool around with the notion that the guys in the black hats were supposed to win. The bad men were easily identifiable; they wore sneers plastered across their faces and six-shooters on both hips. And they didn’t need to say the f-word every 10 seconds for us to know that they were lousy galoots.

Problem was, for those guys, they all were going to run up against Marshal Dillon at some point. And we all knew who was going to win. Didn’t spoil the plot at all.

The opening sequence of every show got right down to business: Matt faced down an outlaw in the streets of Dodge City and outdrew him, leaving him lying deader than a timber rattler in the dusty streets of the Old West.

Each week brought a different challenge for Matt, and he wasn’t immune to getting hurt, either. He got shot quite often, as a matter of fact, but never fatally. When he was nursing a wound, you could bet the outlaws were going to converge on Dodge City, itching to finally do him in.

They never succeeded.

Along the way, we had plenty of fun with Festus, Matt’s backwoods bumpkin deputy who somehow pitched in with an accurate gunshot at just the right time; Doc Adams, the crusty old physician who pulled countless bullets out of Matt; and, of course, Kitty, the saloon owner whose relationship with Matt was always portrayed, shall we say, subtly.

Of course, we viewers know that when Matt and Kitty headed upstairs at the Long Branch Saloon, there was gonna be a little hanky-panky going on. But the camera never followed them farther than halfway up the stairs.

When I was a kid, Gunsmoke was the top-rated show in the country. I knew that at 7:30 every Saturday night, my dad would be reared back in his easy chair, waiting to see Matt gun down the bad guys.

The show eventually expanded to an hour. Festus replaced Chester, the original gimpy-legged deputy, and other sideline characters came and went. But through it all, Matt was there to fight the outlaws, and Doc and Kitty could be counted on to see him through the bad times.

Arness portrayed Marshall Dillon in five separate decades: the 1950s through the 1970s in the weekly TV series, and then in the 1980s and 1990s in five made-for-TV movies. He was as tough in the last one as in the first.

Time did to Marshal Dillon what the most evil outlaw couldn’t, and now he’s gone. But he’ll live on in syndication, and in the hearts of those who knew him as TV’s greatest western hero.

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