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How John Wayne Got James Arness The Lead On Gunsmoke

One of the most successful dramatic shows in television history was "Gunsmoke." The Western, which aired on CBS from 1955 to 1975, is one of the longest-running live action shows to air in primetime, holding the record for a number of years before recently being overtaken, even beating cancellation thanks to political pressure.

The show, which was adapted from a radio drama of the same name, followed the exploits of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, portrayed by James Arness, as he worked in and around Dodge City, Kansas, helping uphold the law and solve disputes, while forming relationships with the town's characters.

Arness, however, was not the first choice for the role; it was offered to screen legend John Wayne, who in turn helped secure the role for Arness. In an interview, Arness spoke about how the big screen star helped him secure the most important role of his long career.

Wayne suggested Arness for the role after working with him

In an interview with SCV (via jamesarness.com), James Arness spoke about how John Wayne opened the door for what would become the defining role of Arness' career. Arness was under contract with Wayne's production company at the time and had done a few movies with him. When Wayne was approached for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon, the lead character of "Gunsmoke," he turned it down, then suggested Arness for the role instead.

As Arness recalled, "When the 'Gunsmoke' offer came in, [Wayne] said, 'I wouldn't be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.'" Besides recommending Arness, Wayne also stepped up in a hands-on way — "he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. ... It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him," said Arness.

Prior to "Gunsmoke," the four movies Arness worked on with Wayne were "Big Jim McLain," "Island in the Sky," "Hondo," and "The Sea Chase." Arness also reprised the role of Matt Dillon for a number of TV movies in the '90s, culminating in "Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice" in 1994.