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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Monday, May 26, 2008

Happy Birthday James Arness

Well, as it's a holiday I don't feel obligated to post anything writing related today. As I was surfing the net yesterday, I happened upon the fact that today was Mr. James Arness's birthday. He turns 85 today!

First and foremost, of course, to me he is United States Marshall Matt Dillon, who rode for justice for twenty years during Gunsmoke's incredible run. Since Gunsmoke aired from 1955 to 1975, I actually only saw maybe 5-6 years of the show, as I probably wasn't old enough to watch until its final seasons. So while there were various personnel changes over the years on the show, including stints by Burt Reynolds and Dennis Weaver, to me, the dream Gunsmoke crew consisted of Matt, Kitty, Doc, Festus and Newly. Because of the glaring absence of Miss Kitty in the final season, I don't remember that one too fondly but as I recall there were a few good episodes even then.

All four of these Dodge City residents were intriguing all on their own. The tough U.S. Marshall of course - combining a laid back style with an iron fist when it came to upholding the law - and big as a mountain! I can only imagine what it must have been like doing scenes with this 6'7" actor. I have read he often had to stand in a ditch or his fellow actors on boxes so he could be in the shot.

And Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell - well she remains my favorite female TV character to this day. Actually, she's probably my favorite female character period. The womanly wiles, the toughness, a smart business woman - she had it all. I still drive friends crazy quoting Miss Kitty in one of my favorite moments in the three part Gunsmoke episode "The Bullet", when she tears into a young female piece of jailbait with the line that begins "Don't you try buckin' me, honey." WOOHOO!!!! Don't mess with Miss Kitty! Miss Kitty was such a wonderful character that 2 cats in my life are named after her - my friend's cat I call Miss Kitty and the stray cat I feed is Miss Russell (though the cats forgot to follow the script - neither is a redhead).

Milburn Stone as Doc - who can forget the crusty, lovable doc? The banter with him and Festus is legendary to me - I just loved those two together.

And Buck Taylor as Newly O'Brien - a terrific addition to the Dodge City crew. I loved his introductory episode - The Pillagers. It was awesome. Unfortunately, while they did a little to follow up on the tremendous story opportunities established in The Pillagers, I often felt Newly didn't get the character development he deserved. But he was also an interesting contrast to the Marshall - here was a responsible young man, trying to find his chosen profession in life who ends up spending part of the time working as a deupty marshall - his ways were different than Matt's, and sometimes it landed him in trouble - but he learned as he went.

By the way, I also learned belatedly that Buck Taylor just celebrated a birthday on May 13th, so a belated happy birthday to you, too, Mr. Taylor!

What a greaet cast and crew! What a great show!

But in addition to Gunsmoke, there is one other very strong role I think of when I think of James Arness and that was his role in the 70's mini-series How The West Was Won as Zeb Macahan. I still remember how excited I was to see James Arness back in action after Gunsmoke and how much I loved Zeb's character. How The West Was Won also had a great supporting cast and crew, including then up and coming Bruce Boxleitner.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Arness. Thanks for all your wonderful contributions to western television.


Patti Shene said...

Thanks for writing such a wonderful tribute to Mr. Arness! I still remember how exciting it was for me when I went to LA to celebrate his 80th birthday and met him in person for the first time. He is such a wonderful man and made all of us feel like we were the most important person in the room!

Patti Shene said...

Correction on that last post, Brenda! His birthday was our second visit to see him. The first was in 2001 when his autobiography came out and he did the booksigning.