Today, I take note of the passing of a giant (both figuratively and physically) in the history of television. James Arness — the 6-foot, 7-inch star of CBS’s “Gunsmoke” — passed away June 3 at the age of 88. In the television western “Gunsmoke,” he vigilantly strode the dusty and volatile streets of Dodge City. His job was to make the citizenry feel secure in a wild and restless frontier.
He did just that from 1955 to 1975.
Marshall Matt Dillon’s authoritative presence in Dodge was equaled only by the show’s place in the network’s lineup. Its popularity was based on the show’s ability to juxtapose a tumultuous time (and place, the West) with the calm demeanor of a humble — yet, enigmatic — lawman.
“Gunsmoke” reached the status of “classic” before the show’s run even ended.
Unlike most cowboys of TV and the silver screen, the star didn’t share billing with his horse or dog. (In fact, his horse’s name was mentioned only once in the program’s 20-year run. And in case you happen to get on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” the horse’s name was Buck.)
There was no mistaking the fact that Arness’ Marshall Dillon was the “bell cow” of the show’s bevy of cowpokes. But there were some memorable mainstays in the cast whose supporting characters became almost as synonymous with the show as the star’s. Chester Goode, Kitty Blake, “Doc” Adams and, later on, the face-contortionist, tobacco-spewin’ Festus all made major contributions to the show’s legacy.
Dennis Weaver’s portrayal of Deputy Chester Goode gave the show some of its lighter moments. And I doubt there isn’t anyone my age who didn’t, at one time or another, run through the schoolyard as a kid with a fake limp, yelling “Mistah Dillon, Mistah Dillon!”
“Gunsmoke” was one of my dad’s favorite shows. That’s probably why I wax nostalgic about it now. Saturday night wasn’t complete without Dad sitting down to watch Matt Dillon do his thing. Who could resist the charm of this honorable lawman — a guy who could always make things right whether it be with his wits, fists or gun? My dad couldn’t.
Sipping on his cream soda and watching “Gunsmoke,” Dad needed little more than those simple pleasures to make his life complete. As he is today, he was in heaven.
And now, perhaps he can actually meet James Arness. I hope so.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you. And say hi to “Mistah Dillon” for me.
And that’s the way it looks from the Valley.