The Day Matt Dillon Died
Bye-bye Mister American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry…a piece of Americana died on June 3, 2011, in the shape and form of one Marshal Matt Dillon – James Arness. Eighty eight years old. Matt Dillon tamed the west each week for decades on American TV and the shows are still on cable channels, and they have been broadcast all over the planet through time.
It is hard for many to digest that years ago in the USA, there were only three main TV channels for the whole country and some very small, local, add-on local channels. Dillon’s “Gunsmoke” was on prime-time, CBS and each week…get this…40 million TV sets were tuned to “Gunsmoke”. Forty million. Today, top-10 shows like NCIS garner seven million viewers at best. Some shows stay on with only two million now. More competition now of course but how many TV sets were there in the late 50s? And how many people huddled around them?
Arness was a wounded WW II war vet, who turned to acting after the war. He played a “carrot-man” alien in the first “Thing” movie. He even fought giant ants in the classic “Them!” Creepy classics. John Wayne had a production company, and James Arness was contracted to him. Wayne MADE Arness take the TV part of Matt Dillion, knowing he would be well suited for it. The rest is history.
For me, the best “Gunsmoke” shows were the first series starting in 1955 – black and white half-episodes. Then the next best were the one-hour black and white shows. The worst were the one-hour color ones. “Gunsmoke” became a main target of the non-violence movement and it became drama stories damn near like “Little House on the Prairie”. If Matt so much as touched his pistol, little hippy censors in Hollywood would scream and moan about violence on TV. Ratings plummeted. Keep in mind that Italian Westerns were filling the movie houses and killing off a hundred and a half bad guys each film, yet on television Matt Dillion had to become the hippy-happy Marshal of Peace-nik Valley.
At the end of its run in 1975, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote “Gunsmoke” was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the West. Our own Iliad and Odyssey created from standard elements of the pulp western. It was ever the stuff of legend.”
After the “Gunsmoke” years Arness cow-poked around. Noteworthy was his his mountain man role as Zebulon “Zeb” Macahan in the TV series “How the West Was Won” (very big in Europe by the way, and moderately popular in the USA). As the world grew more sophisticated, so did television and these shows were actually better than “Gunsmoke”, but still not of the depth we might see around today. Yeah, they were sappy at times.
The anti-violence hippies were gone by then and action abounded. One of my all-time favorite, TV fight scenes occurred on that very show, when Zeb and a friend entered a bar for revenge against some bad guys. WHAT a gunfight and fist fight! Ending with Zeb throwing a bowie knife into a guy’s chest and pinning him to a wooden wall! My God. If only You Tube had that clip.
Still later, with the success of the “Lonesome Dove” TV series, this type of production company brought an aged Arness as an elder Matt Dillon in some made-for-TV “Gunsmoke” movies. They were pretty good, too.
So there I was. A weird, little kid, a generation lost in space, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, watching “Gunsmoke” on Saturday nights on our black and white TV set full of big, hot burning glass tubes like the kind you see in old science fiction movies. Just like another 40 million TV sets from coast-to-USA-coast. That’s a whole chunk of America, and when Arness died? So did a little chunk of Americana. Some of that great theme music of America died, too.
“And as the flames climbed high into the night, To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight, The day the music died…”.
Adios Matt. Adios Zeb. And good night to you too, America… – Hock Hochheim