James Arness (May 26, 1923 - June 3, 2011)
When I was twelve-years old, I wrote a letter to a classic Hollywood actor named James Arness. I knew at the time that Mr. Arness had played Marshall Matt Dillon, on what some consider to be the definitive Western television show, Gunsmoke. Marshall Dillon was an incorruptible character. No matter how many threats were issued to him from gunslingers and various riff-raff, the Marshall never gave in. The Long Branch saloon served as the gathering scene for all the characters of the show.
Owned and operated by Miss Kitty, the Long Branch was home to all of Marshall Dillon’s varying personality traits. Most prevalently seen while at the Long Branch was the Marshall’s serene disposition. Even though the Marshall threw many a good punch while in the Long Branch, his general attitude was that of calm contentment. I think it’s safe to say that sitting at the corner poker table or leaning against the bar, having a drink with Kitty was Marshall Dillon’s oasis. In twenty seasons (Miss Kitty being present for nineteen of them), the Marshall never did gather enough nerve to ride off into the sunset with Kitty. There were plenty of well-thought out references to their love for each other, but the two never did adopt the title of Official Couple.
Maybe they never rode off into the sunset because Kitty and Matt knew that we couldn’t get enough. As the audience, we would wait and wait and wait, and yet we still kept watching even though the two never got together. It was disappointing but it was enough to just see the two characters interact with each other. That is exactly how I will continue. I was content to watch Gunsmoke as long as the characters I loved were present. Whether it was Chester or Festus, I loved watching the secondary cast. However, in the end it was always Marshall Dillon that I wanted to see.
I suppose it is fitting now that Mr. Arness has left us like he has - wanting more, but now just wishing that we had him here at all. I now especially treasure the personalized autograph he mailed back to me ten years ago, and I feel fortunate to be able to have a piece of Mr. Arness’ iconic legacy.
Rest in peace, Marshall. We already miss you.
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