For all of my childhood, James Arness, and the show he starred in, Gunsmoke, were a constant presence. The television show, a sequel to the radio show of the same name, came on the air in 1955 and ran for 20 years. I was born in 57 and graduated from high school in 75. Each week my family would watch the show, even the reruns. We had a slight personal connection to the show, my grandfather, a shoemaker, making a pair of boots for James Arness to wear in his role of Matt Dillon. Gunsmoke was a well made show with good plots, fine acting and above average writing. It also was a skillful mixture of drama and comedy, with one or two of the episodes each season being almost completely humorous. It was packaged as a western, but its focus was often on moral questions, and the lesson that I drew from them was that no matter how tough, dangerous or difficult, you always have to do what is right rather than what is expedient.
The anchor of the show was James Arness and his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon. Honest, brave and resourceful, he made sure that Dodge was kept safe by constantly risking his own life. Arness was completely believable in that role, perhaps because in his own life he also showed extreme courage. During World War II he served in Europe as a rifleman in the Third Infantry Division, which had more combat deaths than any other US division in the War. Severely wounded at Anzio he was honorably discharged after several surgeries. His wounds never completely healed, causing him pain which he stoically endured for the rest of his life. He was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star.
He hitchhiked to Hollywood after the War, began acting and became a lifelong friend of John Wayne who recommended him for the part of Matt Dillon. He died at age 88 yesterday, June 3, 2011. Rest in peace Mr. Arness.