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James Arness as Matt Dillon in 1969.
|Created by||Norman Macdonnell/John Meston|
|Portrayed by||William Conrad (Radio) |
James Arness (TV)
Matt Dillon is a fictional character featured on both the radio and television versions of Gunsmoke. He serves as the U.S. Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, who works to preserve law and order in the western frontier of the 1870s. The character was created by writer John Meston, who envisioned him as a man "...whose hair is probably red, if he's got any left. He'd be handsomer than he is if he had better manners but life and his enemies have left him looking a little beat up, and I suppose having seen his mother (back about 1840) trying to take a bath in a wooden washtub without fully undressing left his soul a little warped. Anyway, there'd have to be something wrong with him or he wouldn't have hired on as a United States Marshal in the heyday of Dodge City, Kansas." Notwithstanding Meston's original vision, the character evolved considerably during Gunsmoke's nine-year run on CBS Radio and its 20-year run on CBS Television (Columbia Broadcasting System).
As portrayed on the radio series
On the radio series which ran from 1952 until 1961, Matt was portrayed by William Conrad, whose deep and resonant voice helped to project a larger than life presence. In the opening of most radio episodes, the announcer would describe the show as "...the story of the violence that moved west with young America, and the story of a man who moved with it." William Conrad's Matt would take over, saying, "I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal – the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It's a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful ... and a little lonely." Conrad's Matt provided bits of narration for many of the radio episodes, usually to help set the scene for the listener or to provide observations that assisted with character development. Inasmuch as the radio episodes were a bit darker and more violent in nature than the television episodes (especially in the radio series' early years), Conrad's Marshal Dillon could sometimes be quick to anger and unhesitating with respect to taking violent courses of action. Paradoxically, however, Conrad's Dillon often struggled internally with the need to utilize violence in order to fulfill his duties. He also struggled internally with the frequent needless tragedies that his job caused him to witness. These factors were the primary reasons that Conrad's Matt could occasionally become snappish and impatient with others (including his friends and allies). At all times, however, he managed to remain sufficiently in control of his emotions to perform his difficult job capably and impartially. Conrad's Matt would speak frequently of the still-fragile acceptance of law and order on the frontier and he would sometimes determine his course of action based upon what he honestly felt was necessary to preserve its long-term acceptance. In the radio version, Marshal Dillon spoke of actual persons who were well known in the history of the American West, including later Dodge City personage Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid (whose "supposed" origins figured in the very first episode of the radio series), and he often referred to Wild Bill Hickok as being a close personal friend.
As portrayed on the television series
In the television version (which ran from 1955 until 1975), and subsequent TV-movies (1987 to 1994), Matt was portrayed by James Arness. Since most of the early television episodes were based on stories and scripts from the radio version, Arness's initial interpretation and portrayal was similar to William Conrad's. However, as the television version continued, Arness's Marshal Matt Dillon evolved in a number of ways. In the television version, Dillon became more resigned to the violent nature of his job, and he was generally less given to brooding about the dangers and tragedies inherent in it. Arness's Matt was somewhat more understanding and tolerant of people's foibles, and he was a bit more intuitive with respect to discerning persons who came to Dodge City with the intention of committing crimes. As Arness's Matt grew older and wiser, he became less inclined to use violence to subdue wrongdoers (plus less an emphasis on violence in later episodes of the series in the late 1960s and 1970s because of national society trends). However, he never hesitated to do so when the situation warranted. Dillon often tried to talk men out of "trying him", and would express a genuine regret to family members when he had to kill a man. In a salute to modern police dramas, one episode ("The Fourth Victim") has Matt Dillon try to stop a mad killer who is shooting Dodge citizens for no apparent reason.
Possibly the angriest Matt Dillon ever got was after an accidental shooting ("The Round Up"). An old friend, Zel, had come to town during an influx of wild acting cattle drovers. Matt deputized him, and he and Matt were making rounds, one on each side of the street. When Matt was attacked in a saloon, Zel heard the commotion and came to his aid. Not expecting his friend, Matt turned, saw a figure with a gun, and shot him. As he died, Zel told Dillon that it wasn't his fault and he couldn't know Zel had crossed the street. Dillon soon after went into a rage, throwing drovers out of saloons and closing down the town. 
Because of Arness's large (6 foot, 7 inches) physical presence, most of Matt's adversaries seemed overmatched unless there were several of them. In any event, only the toughest or the most foolhardy individuals dared challenge him to a fair fight. On a few occasions, he even proved himself capable of defeating burly bare-knuckle prize fighters, and he once noted that he had done a bit of boxing while serving in the Army. On television, Matt tended to be a man of fewer words, which can largely be attributed to the fundamental fact that television is a visual medium as opposed to the radio. Since the audience can see what is happening, there is less need to describe surroundings or events through the use of dialog. Arness's Matt thus naturally evolved into a "strong, silent" type of character who tended to act rather than talk at length about possible courses of action.
Perhaps the best measure of Matt Dillon's endurance and physical prowess is how he survived the dozens of gunshot wounds and other assaults on his person during the 20-year run of the television series. In 2013, Marshall Trimble, the board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association, documented all of Dillon's wounds from gunfire as well as his other brushes with death. According to Trimble, Dodge City's federal marshal was shot no less than 56 times, knocked unconscious 29 times, stabbed on three occasions, and poisoned once.
Characteristics common to both portrayals
During the 9-year run of the radio version of Gunsmoke and the 20-year run of the television version, surprisingly little was revealed about Matt's family history or about events in his past that may have shaped his views or his attitude toward his work. In both the radio and the television episodes, stories would occasionally center around individuals with whom he had once been close friends. Usually his experiences with these friends involved jobs on the periphery of law enforcement, such as tracking down rustlers or lost cattle for ranch owners. It was often implied that he had led an adventurous and sometimes nomadic lifestyle before becoming a U.S. Marshal and one of his old friends proudly stated that "I knew Matt Dillon before he was civilized!" On another occasion, Matt stated that he had once been a preacher but that "...the pay was too small to support (his) gambling habit". This was apparently said in jest, as there was no other mention of it during the series' run on radio or television. His earlier service in the United States Army was briefly mentioned.
Certain of Matt's characteristics remained common to both the radio and television versions. Throughout both, Matt remained steadfast, honest, absolutely incorruptible, and dedicated to the cause of bringing genuine law and order to the violent and untamed American West. He rarely acted in an impetuous manner and he was invariably fair and impartial in the performance of his duties, even when it required subordinating his personal views concerning people or incidents. However, a certain edge was often evident in his voice when dealing with individuals who seemed destined to cause trouble and he would occasionally mete out harsh treatment to those who publicly challenged his authority or unwisely pushed him too far. He was fast and accurate with the single gun he carried and could easily outdraw almost any adversary, despite the fact that he virtually always allowed them to draw first. Matt was also notably compassionate toward those who had fallen on hard times or who had lost a loved one to crime or violence.
In both the television and the radio versions, his closest friends were his assistant Chester, town physician "Doc" Adams, and saloon-keeper Kitty Russell. These three individuals were among Matt's few real friends because he knew that he could trust them in any situation. In the television version, Chester was eventually replaced by Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis). Festus was an uneducated member of a large and roguish family, but he was a savvy plainsman who ultimately became a badge-wearing Deputy U.S. Marshal (a position that always eluded Chester).
Relationship with Kitty Russell
In both the radio and television versions, the exact nature of Matt's relationship with Kitty Russell was deliberately kept somewhat vague. Kitty was portrayed by Georgia Ellis in the radio version and by Amanda Blake in the television version. In both versions, she was initially just another saloon hostess, and a popular story holds that she was actually a prostitute in the early radio episodes. However, this was never actually stated (or even implied) in any of the story lines and Kitty eventually acquired a considerable measure of respectability by becoming a part-owner (and ultimately the sole owner) of the thriving Long Branch Saloon.
In both the radio and television versions, Matt frequently dined and socialized with Kitty and he rarely showed more than polite interest in any other woman. Kitty was similarly devoted to Matt, Her job brought her into daily contact with many different men from all walks of life, but she seldom showed more than fleeting interest in any of them. It was evident that Kitty would have readily accepted Matt's proposal of marriage, but she was a realist and she once summed up their relationship with "Matt Dillon's a man with no strings on him. Let's just say he's more mine than anybody else's." Kitty was well aware that Matt was reluctant to marry because the high-risk nature of his job could have made her a widow at any time. She nevertheless found this situation difficult to accept at times, and she would occasionally decide to leave Dodge City to pursue other opportunities or relationships. This occurred more often in the television episodes than it did in the radio episodes, and it typically occurred after Matt had inadvertently been thoughtless. Kitty always returned to Dodge City and to her duties at the Long Branch, though, and on occasion Matt would demonstrate a profound depth of feeling for her.
In any event, they always remained devoted to one another in their own unique fashion. Over time, Matt also learned to have considerable respect for Kitty's ability to spot female troublemakers. Whenever he disregarded Kitty's warnings about the intentions or character of a particular woman, he invariably regretted it.
An early (November 29, 1952) radio episode that was simply titled "Kitty" provided a particularly significant insight into a major reason for the affinity that the two felt toward one another. Matt invites Kitty to a public dance and she is reluctant to accept for fear that she will be viewed with disdain due to her vocation as a saloon hostess. Matt is persistent and Kitty eventually relents, but her instincts prove correct. She is shunned and treated rudely by the respectable citizens in attendance, including a few men who avidly seek her company in other venues.
Genuinely hurt, Kitty abruptly leaves the dance in tears and Matt becomes uncharacteristically angry with several individuals who imply that it is improper for a U.S. Marshal to be seen in such company. Subsequently, Matt seeks Kitty out to comfort her and reassure her that she will always have his admiration, affection, and respect, regardless of the views of others. Kitty is moved and cheered by Matt's gesture and the episode ends with the two sharing a private dance in an empty barroom. Matt's sincerity is obvious inasmuch as he himself sometimes finds that the respectable citizens of Dodge City regard him with trepidation (and even suspicion) because his job involves being "...paid to handle a bad element." It is apparent that the incident at the dance has considerably strengthened the bond and the trust between Matt and Kitty.
Character name and casting decisions
In a 1949 audition show (or pilot) for the radio series, the character was named "Mark Dillon", but by 1952, when the regular series aired, the name had been changed to Matt Dillon. When the program came to television in 1955, the first episode was introduced by John Wayne in a brief film clip in which Wayne predicted that James Arness would become a major star. He went on to play the part for the next twenty years.
A popular story holds that Wayne himself had been offered the part and had turned it down. Charles Marquis Warren, who produced the first year of the television version of Gunsmoke and made the major casting decisions, stated that he had jokingly asked Wayne whether he would be interested in the part in a casual social setting. He added that Wayne had indicated in no uncertain terms that he had no interest whatsoever. (Wayne was arguably the cinema's foremost box office attraction at the time.) Warren stated that the inquiry had not been serious inasmuch as Wayne could not realistically have been expected to abandon a thriving movie career for a less certain and immensely less lucrative television role. Wayne did, however, recommend James Arness for the part and his offer to introduce the first episode was readily accepted by CBS.
Others who had auditioned for the part included Raymond Burr, Richard Boone, Denver Pyle, and William Conrad. All would go on to other television successes. Conrad, in particular, would continue to portray Matt on the radio series until it ended in 1961. He would also go on to direct a number of television programs (including two episodes of Gunsmoke), to become "The Narrator" for the original television series of The Fugitive (1963–1967) and star in three television series: Cannon (1971–1976), Jake and the Fat Man (1987–1992), and the short-lived 1981 series Nero Wolfe.
In popular culture
In the 1988 action classic, Die Hard, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), asks John McClane (Bruce Willis) whom he is trying to imitate with his heroics, and he mentions Marshal Dillon as well as action heroes John Wayne and Rambo.
In Toby Keith's 1993 number one hit, "Should've Been a Cowboy", the entire first verse concerns the relationship between Dillon and Miss Kitty. In the song Miss Kitty would have said yes to Matt "in a New York Minute," but Dillon's heart wasn't in it. "He stole a kiss as he rode away...."
In some episodes of Gilligan's Island, Gilligan would dream that he was "Matt Dillon" in Dodge City, and the CBS Gunsmoke set was used, including the jail and sheriff's office. Gilligan's Island was later abruptly canceled to make room to restore Gunsmoke, which had just been canceled, to the schedule at the insistence of William S. Paley's wife.
In an early episode of Have Gun Will Travel, Paladin is vying for a job against another bounty hunter, who claims to have been Matt Dillon's deputy when Dillon was the marshal in Austin, Texas. Paladin calls the man a fraud, saying Dillon never served in Austin.
In Maverick a character called Matt Pickle was Marshal of towns that the Maverick brothers ran through. One second-season episode was a full parody of a Gunsmoke episode. Later episodes had Pickle being less hostile to the brothers.
In The Simpsons episode Forgive and Regret in the cold opening, Maggie Simpson has a gunfight with Marshal Matt Dillon, marking the show surpassing Gunsmoke as the longest-running scripted American primetime television series by number of episodes.
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. pp. 301–306. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507678-8.
- Barabas, SuzAnne and Barabas, Gabor (1990). Gunsmoke: A Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company. ISBN 0-89950-418-3.
- Trimble, Marshall (April 15, 2013). "How Many Times Was Marshal Matt Dillon Shot on Gunsmoke?" True West Magazine.