James Arness, who for 20 years personified the upright Western lawman as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, has died of natural causes at age 88. I’ll be honest: Gunsmoke was before my time as a TV viewer, and is enough outside my taste as a critic that I never watched it much as an adult. But by any measure Arness’ run on the show, and the connection he developed with viewers over the course of a generation–not to mention simply being to maintain interest in a character all those years–was a remarkable achievement.
Arness (brother of Peter Graves, who died last year) was the picture of Western rectitude, with his tall stature, square jaw and clean-cut looks. But though Gunsmoke was a traditional TV Western, as Arness notes in the interview above, you can see in Dillon the seeds of more conflicted lawmen in Westerns like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (and even, defined more broadly, Raylan Givens in Justified). Though the show was called Gunsmoke, Arness’ Dillon—who kept his emotions in check and would not draw first—made clear that the show was not trigger-happy.
Arness carried the character with a quiet, deliberate strength (aided by his 6′ 7″ stature) and with few words, conveyed both toughness and empathy—whether Dillon was staring down a lawbreaker or passing the time with saloonkeeper Miss Kitty. Arness embodied an archetype, but made two decades’ worth of TV viewers (and more since) feel they knew Matt Dillon as a person. RIP.