‘Gunsmoke’: How Much Money James Arness Made Playing Matt Dillon on the ‘Most Perennially Profitable’ Show Ever

Gunsmoke actor James Arness became the most valuable actor for CBS. The Western television show sat at the top of the ratings for years. However, the network ultimately decided to cancel it abruptly without any warning for the cast or crew. Nevertheless, Arness made a fortune off Gunsmoke that he never saw coming from the start. Here’s a look at how much that fortune amounted to.

James Arness thought John Wayne ruined his career by recommending him for ‘Gunsmoke’

'Gunsmoke' James Arness as Matt Dillon in a black-and-white picture in his Western uniform, holding out his gun
James Arness as Matt Dillon | CBS via Getty Images

Before Gunsmoke came along, Arness was aiming for a career in the movie business. However, he had difficulty breaking out in a meaningful way. Much of this was because his 6’7″ height worried a lot of leading men in Hollywood that they would look small next to him. Arness worked with movie star John Wayne, which led to them growing closer as colleagues and friends.

There were some initial rumors that Gunsmoke decision-makers asked Wayne to star in the Western television show. However, they later denied the rumors, explaining that they knew he had no interest in making a pivot away from feature films. But, he did recommend Arness for the part of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. According to TV Guide, he initially responded to the movie star, “Duke, you ruined my career!”

‘Gunsmoke’ actor James Arness made $30 million from playing Matt Dillon

Arness was a private man throughout his Gunsmoke fame. He made time for his fans and regularly attended events in the early years, but otherwise, he kept to himself. The actor enjoyed spending uninterrupted quality time with his family. He was undoubtedly a valuable asset to the television show and CBS, earning him a pretty penny over the course of the show’s run.

TV Guide estimated that Arness earned around $30 million for his work on Gunsmoke up until 1970, which converts to about $230 million in modern currency. That didn’t include that the show still had another five years’ worth of life in it, as well as five made-for-TV movies thereafter.

According to Outsider, the Western television star made $20,000 per episode after contract renegotiations. For context, that’s roughly $150,000 in modern currency.

However, those numbers didn’t seem too surprising to TV Guide, referring to the show as “the most perennially profitable ever to put to film.”

John Wayne explained why the show was so popular

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Wayne understood why Arness and Gunsmoke connected so much with audiences. “No mystery to me,” the movie star said to TV Guide. “I always knew Gunsmoke was a good thing.” Despite dips in the ratings, CBS boss William S. Paley was such a big fan that he ensured its survival for quite some time.

The Western feature film actor stayed true to his word. He starred in the first-ever episode to introduce the show. Wayne explained that he didn’t star in it, but he acquainted viewers with Arness, assuring them that he would be a big name in the future. He certainly had a finger on the pulse of Western storytelling and audiences in his time.