James Arness : I don’t believe in the axiom that people won’t pay to see in a theatre what they can see at home on TV for free
Gunsmoke actor James Arness became a huge star thanks to his performance as Matt Dillon, similar to other actors who appeared on the show. He had the opportunity to reach the silver screen, but it came with its own challenges and concerns. Arness once talked about why he worried about transitioning his Gunsmoke fame to the movies, even though the leap was certainly a possibility during a time when the two mediums starkly opposed each other.
According to a 1962 interview with Australia’s TV Times, Gunsmoke star Arness talked about the state of the television industry. Many folks predicted that television had the possibility of killing the movie industry because audiences could enjoy entertainment for free from home. However, Arness didn’t share the same concern.
“I don’t believe in the axiom that people won’t pay to see in a theatre what they can see at home on TV for free,” Arness said. “That theory isn’t proven. Why, I’ve had people come and pay six or six-and-a-half dollars to see me for 10 minutes at a rodeo. And they didn’t come just one either. But packed the places night after night. If people pay to see you in one thing, they’ll pay to see you in something else.”
Arness continued: “But it has to be good. Once they come to know and like you, you’d darn well better be good if they have to pay.”
Arness told Australia’s TV Times the reason why he didn’t take his Gunsmoke fame to the silver screen. It wasn’t because he didn’t have the opportunity to do so, but he wanted to do it on specific terms. However, he understood that the studios would simply want to bring his Gunsmoke aesthetic to the silver screen rather than giving him an opportunity to do something different.
“The problem that most TV actors like myself have is that we’re usually offered the small-type movies, where they can exploit our name and shoot it on a small financial budget,” Arness said. “In my case, pictures like that simply want to take advantage of the Matt Dillon reputation, which is exactly what I don’t want. I want major pictures – and I don’t care if it’s not the leading role.”
Some actors desire to shed the image of a popular television series to move on to bigger projects. However, Arness didn’t necessarily feel that way about Gunsmoke. He was very appreciative of the opportunity and wanted to continue playing the iconic lead role, even despite some initial doubts.
“We’ve all probably had our secret doubts about going on with it,” Arness said. “Maybe there isn’t much more I can do with the role after all this time. But so what? The dough’s still coming in, and I could keep on playing Matt Dillon forever.”
When asked for how long he planned to play Dillon, he said, “Forever, if people want it.” The Western genre certainly had its period of peak popularity.