By Jim Whitt
James Arness, who passed away last week at the age of 88, was a natural fit for the role of Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.
A World War II veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, Arness looked every bit the part of the western hero. He was 5 inches short of being seven feet tall and in the tradition of John Wayne, talked low, talked slow and didn’t say too much. In the character of Matt Dillon his response to those who both kept or broke the law was appropriately measured. He showed kindness and respect where it was due. He wasn’t violent but didn’t tolerate violence.
The western story will always hold a powerful place in our imaginations and Gunsmoke defined that story on television for 635 episodes. Reruns of those episodes can still be seen every day and I think the reason it’s still popular is because it represents the world the way we think it should be. We live in a time where all too often justice isn’t served, where politicians talk too much and do too little and where third world dictators behave like drunken cowboys in Dodge City on a Saturday night. We need Matt Dillon to stroll out in the middle of all this and say, “All right, that’s enough.”
No, that will never happen, but at least we can tune into another episode of Gunsmoke andbe assured that no matter what happens in Dodge, Marshal Dillon will have order restored by the time the credits roll at the end of the show.
Maybe the most fitting eulogy for James Arness was spoken by Matt Dillon in a 1958 broadcast, “I’ve seen a lot of men buried up here on Boot Hill, and most of them really earned what they got. They cheated at cards, robbed banks, stole horses, murdered innocent men, and picked fights with friend and enemy alike. They lived and died as though they’d never heard of the law, and they treated me like a trespasser. Someone who had no right to interfere with their bloody little games. But I shot it out with ‘em anyway, and I guess I’ll go right on doing it. As long as I last.”
James Arness has been laid to rest, but Boot Hill will never have a grave big enough to hold Matt Dillon. Matt Dillon will never die. And James Arness will always be Matt Dillon.
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