Book Reviews!

James Arness: An Autobiography

James Arness: The Greta Garbo of Dodge City Speaks

A review of James Arness : An Autobiography by James Arness, James E. Wise (Contributor), Burt Reynolds

224 pages (September 2001) McFarland & Company; ISBN: 0786412216 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.93x10.28x7.16

James Arness: The Greta Garbo of Dodge City Speaks James Arness, best known as Matt Dillon on television's longest running drama, Gunsmoke, is described in TV Guide as a "recluse on a horseback" [1] and "the Greta Garbo of Dodge City" [2]. He is a man who wanted to be left alone. After Gunsmoke sored in the ratings in the late 1950's and early 1960's, Arness would walk of the set if a publicist or journalist appeared. At one point, he called the CBS brass together and said "I'll pay you to keep me out of the papers." [1] Arness' history of secrecy and seclusion is what makes this a juicy book. What prompted him to come into the sunshine? Arness, who wrote his autobiography in his late seventies, says "[If] I was going to write a book about my life, I better do it now ... `cause I'm not getting any younger" [3].

James Arness' account of his life is jam packed with fascinating facts and antecdotes but is largely devoid of personal insight, interspection, core belief assessment, and directed passion. Arness' privacy protecting shell is manifest in his writing. There is much interesting from the book, though, we can infer.

Some have opined that James Arness is Matt Dillon and Matt Dillon is James Arness. Comparison, however, is complicated. Matt Dillon is the type of man who would walk point on a patrol into World War II enemy territory and corageously take out a Nazi machine nest with a hand grenade. James Arness won a bronze star in WWII for doing this. Arness' limp which became more and more pronounced over the years is the result of a bullet from a Nazi machine gun splintering his leg bones during the Allied liberation of Anzio in 1944. He received a Purple Heart for his bravery and heroics. Arness' account of his WWII experiences is riviting.

We learn Arness, as a lad, did many things we would expect from a Matt Dillon. He hopped trains in search of adventure, spent hours in athletic pusuits and, due largely to restlessness and lack of interest, performed marginally in school. A spirited Arness, at the age of 22, hitchhiked west to California to seek his fame and fortune. These are the actions of a Matt Dillon.

On the other hand, Matt Dillon would not join and enjoy a Glee Club and score the tune "Smoke Gets in You Eyes" as a favorite; Matt Dillon would not disruptively buzz his work place in his private plane just for the fun of it; Matt Dillon would not become infatuated with surfing and become a beach bum; and Matt Dillon would not get a case of the giggles severe enough to halt a Gunsmoke work day. Giggles seem to accompany Arness everywhere. They got him fired from an early career announcing job. Ben Bates, James Arness' double on Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won, says James Arness laughs "from his toes to the top of his head when something strikes him as funny". Sometimes, "he just couldn't stop laughing". Matt Dillon does not laugh uncontrollably.

An early picture of the Gunsmoke cast, with Arness laughing "from his toes to the top of his head".

Arness credits his career success to Providence. "I've been one of the luckiest men among the many who came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune... [A] divine hand was guiding me along the way." His gifts of good looks, six and a half foot height, and natural acting skill resonated nicley with TV and movie producers. The spotlight of fame amplified his character flaws. Arness, possibly steming from his poor self image in youth as an awkwardly tall boy, was never comfortable meeting strangers. He developed a self described "Howard Hughs image". Arness and the Gunsmoke cast were invited to the White House to meet Richard Nixon. Buck Taylor, who played Newly on the Gunsmoke, quoted Arness as saying "I just can't do that sort of thing. It's just to hard for me."

Arness' ease at achieving success apparantly did not provide the hard knocks needed for professional maturity. Milburn Stone, who played Doc on Gunsmoke said "I spent the first three years of Gunsmoke hating Jim (Arness). I couldn't stand him professionally... He'd be late or wouldn't show up - never apologize. And once he was there he'd clown around" [4]. Even though Milburn Stone says Arness matured as an actor, a different Arness emerged after Gunsmoke became successful.

After putting in long days perfecting cowboy skills in the early Gunsmokes [5], Arness became the preverbal 800 pound gorilla who, due to being indispensable to one of television's top rated shows, could do anything he wanted. Maybe James Arness was not Matt Dillon - but he became Gunsmoke. TV Guide reported "Early in the game, ... [Arness] demanded and got a large chunk of the [Gunsmoke] production company, later the whole production company." When Arness tired of his ranch and couldn't sell it, CBS took it off his hands [6]. On the set, if Arness didn't like the way things were going, he did not hesitate to "direct the director" [1]. When Buck Taylor wanted a raise, he asked Arness' business agent who said "Let me talk to Jim about it". Arness threatened he didn't want to interrupt his Hawaii vacation plans and return early just to "raise Hell" with CBS". Buck Taylor got the raise. Despite - or maybe because of - Arness' domination of Gunsmoke, guest actors ranked Gunsmoke as one of the most professional and friendly sets in the industry, and, although he could be confrontational with the brass, James Arness as one of the most courteous and friendly stars in the industry [7].

Another of Arness' demands was his solitude. After the first few years of Gunsmoke, Arness quit touring because "it was a strain" [8]. Shooting schedules were arranged so that Arness needed to work for only a fraction of a week. On and off the set, he was a loner. Morgan Woodward, frequent guest star on Gunsmoke, said "[Arness and I] were not social hecause he's is a very private guy." Regular co-star Buck Taylor (Newly) confesses, "I ... socialized with [James Arness] maybe two or three times. I didn't even speak to him a lot. I gave him a lot of space. I think that's why I lasted as long as I did." Detachment accompanied Arness' isolation. Years after Gunsmoke ended, he enjoyed watching reruns in part because he didn't watch them when they were first aired. To Buck Taylor, he confessed "Buck, we did some pretty dad gum good shows back then... Some of them I hadn't seen before."

Arness' autobiography frames Gunsmoke as the peak of his career. There were the John Wayne films before and "How the West Was Won" after, but neither had the impact of television's longest running prime time drama - a jaw dropping 20 years. James Arness is Gunsmoke and Gunsmoke is an icon. Dick Wolf of CBS's "Law and Order" television series admited his driving motivation in television: "I want to beat Gunsmoke" [9]. Chances are he won't.


  • 0.
  • 1. TV Guide, April 6, 1968
  • 2. TV Guide, December 10, 1966
  • 3. The National Enquirer, August 7, 2001
  • 4. TV Guide, June 12, 1965
  • 5. Parade Magazine, April 3, 1960
  • 6. Australian TV Guide, September 22, 1962
  • 7. SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, Gunsmoke: A Completer History, McFarland & Co. (1990).
  • 8. Robert Metz, CBS -Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, (Playboy Press, Chicago, 1975).
  • 9. Gail Shister, 'Law & Order' Chases 'Gunsmoke', Knight Ridder Newspapers, July 2001.

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