MATT DILLON is a fictional character featured on both the radio and
television versions of
Gunsmoke . He serves as the
* 1 As portrayed on the radio series * 2 As portrayed on the television series * 3 Characteristics common to both portrayals * 4 Relationship with Kitty Russell * 5 Character name and casting decisions * 6 In popular culture * 7 References
AS PORTRAYED ON THE RADIO SERIES
On the radio series (which ran from 1952 until 1961), Matt was
AS PORTRAYED ON THE TELEVISION SERIES
James Arness as Matt Dillon in 1969
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 Matt evolved in a number of ways. In the television version, Matt 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. 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.
Possibly the most angry 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 -- 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' 7") 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. 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 marshal was shot no less than 56 times, knocked unconscious 29 times, stabbed on three occasions, and poisoned once.
CHARACTERISTICS COMMON TO BOTH PORTRAYALS
Ken Curtis as Deputy Festus Haggen and Arness as Dillon, 1968
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.
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 ), an uneducated but 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
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
James Arness as Matt Dillon in 1956
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
IN POPULAR CULTURE
In the 1988 action classic,
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. Ironically, 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
* 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, Publishers. ISBN 0-89950-418-3 .
* Trimble, Marshall (2013). "Inside History: 'How Many Times Was Marshal Matt Dillon Shot on Gunsmoke?'" True West: History of the American Frontier, April 13, 2013.
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