Friday, June 3, 2011

James Arness, RIP

My fondest childhood memories are of the weeks during the summer when my parents would drop my younger brother and me off at the home of my paternal grandparents in rural Stanley County, North Carolina. We’d wake up early in the morning, a cool breeze usually stirring the white curtains in the guest bedroom, and toddle off to the kitchen where my grandmother would always have a breakfast buffet of ham, bacon, biscuits and grits (although I didn’t eat the grits), and we’d spend the day roaming the fields and the woods with our cousins, or picking strawberries and green beans in my grandmother’s “garden”, as she called it (in reality, a small farm).

In the evenings – typically balancing a plate of homemade chocolate cake on our laps, and holding a glass filled with ice and Cheerwine (a locally produced black-cherry-flavored soda pop) – my brother and I would sit in the den watching television. I usually claimed the rocker in one corner, my brother would sit in the overstuffed chair in another, and my grandparents would sit on the big leather couch (my grandfather smoking his pipe, and my grandmother sewing). And one show we never missed was Gunsmoke.

Now the hero of that series – Marshall Matt Dillon, or, as he was known in real life, James Arness – has died at age 88. I keenly feel the loss.

And not just because of the happy associations that the program has with those idyllic vacations. He was an icon of the old west whose portrayal of a good man doing a tough job provides some valuable lessons. Mrs. Paco and I watch the show now, in syndication, and it’s amazing how well the series has held up. Marshall Dillon was exhibit A for the forces of law and order, but he was not, by any means, a mere stick figure. Gunsmoke was a morally-textured series, in which the characters were often faced with difficult choices; yet it was not morally ambivalent: justice must be served, and although right and wrong were clearly delineated, there was space for the understanding of human weakness and failure.

We discovered, not too long ago, the Gunsmoke movies that were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and, if anything, these are even more enjoyable than the weekly television series – grittier, better production values, more complex plotting. And what a treat to find, in these movies, the central character played by an older, more weathered-looking, James Arness; a bit gaunt and wrinkled, yet still the same bold, honest and courageous frontiersman.

God rest his soul, and comfort his family and friends (and fans).

A somber H/T to Yojimbo.


Anonymous said...

Found this over at Don Surber's place:

"James Aurness was 6-foot-7 and a member of the 3rd Infantry when it landed at Anzio on January 21, 1944. His right leg was shattered by machine gun fire."

Two of the Gunsmoke movies were on in the last week or so, on Encore Western channel, I think.


Zardoz said...

It was a different time back then. No situational ethics, no gray areas—clear-cut right and wrong. The same era as the Davy Crockett movies: “Be sure you're right, then go ahead.”

As a leading-edge Boomer it's difficult for me to understand todays flexible morality. Is it any wonder that I can't watch the television news and choke my way through the apologists for Weiner, Edwards, Spitzer and all the rest.

Marshall Dillon, you and your sense of justice will be missed.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear of his death, husband [Bob] still watches episodes of Gunsmoke of a late afternoon, he loves the show, [think it makes him feel younger].

Steve Burri said...

And his brother was Peter Graves who died just last year.

JeffS said...

RIP, Mr. Arness.

RebeccaH said...

One of our regular watchables when I was a child as well.

We tend to think there are no more upright moral citizens in the Marshal Dillon mode, but we're wrong. Our military, for instance, is full of them. As is law enforcement, as is the ordinary run of people. They just doesn't get any of the media noise.

Yojimbo said...

Oh Mrs. H, you are waaay tooo young to watch anything but reruns of these shows!

That was a golden age indeed. Some of the Yojimbo favorites from that era:

Wagon Train
The Lone Ranger
The Cisco Kid (Ah Cisco! Ah Pancho!)
Roy Rogers
Not Gene Autry!

And Davy Crockett! Disney had a wonder Sunday night program where they rotated stories. One of those was Davy Crockett with Fess Parker. Just great.

Some of the others from that era:
The Rifleman
Johnny Yuma
Lash LaRue
And Hugh O'Brien as Wyatt!

Gosh, so many good memories. I'm sure I've forgotten a ton as well. Sorry for the long post.

Paco said...

Cheyenne is one of Mrs. Paco's favorites (and mine). It was a Warner Bros. TV production, which on one occasion actually featured an episode that was a remake of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (also produced by Warner Bros.)

bruce said...

My favourite was The Rifleman with Chuck Connors, and the kid - who was about my age.

Yojimbo said...

Yes, Cheyenne was good. Wild Bill Hickok was good as well. It featured Andy Devine, one of my favorites, as the sidekick. I can still hear that high pitched "Hey Wild Bill, wait for me!" I can't remember ever watching Rawhide which was very popular. I forgot to add The Virginian in that list as well as Bat Masterson, with Gene Barry.

Told ya I would forget a bunch!

Paco said...

There was also Steve McQueen in Bounty Hunter, although I don't recall ever seeing that one myself.

Yojimbo said...

Oh yes! Forgot about that one too! A very good series. If I remember correctly he carried a sawed off lever action rifle that was carried like a regular sidearm.

I can't remember the exact
chronology but that must have been the era of the sawed off. I think Johnny Yuma carried a sawed off shotgun and James Caan did the same in a John Wayne movie, can't remember the name.

Paco said...

YoJ: James Caan carried a sawed-off shotgun with a cut-down stock in one of my favorite westerns, El Dorado (which also featured Bob Mitchum).

Steve Burri said...

Out of the blue of the Western sky comes... Sky King!

Yojimbo said...

Yes, I thought about Sky King(not one of my favorites). Somehow a guy running around in a twin engine Beechcraft, or whatever, just seemed too far off the mark.
Of course, one of my favorites was a guy riding around in a longboat way before the American West was even settled so who am I to raise western purity! And then there was the guy driving around in a jeep named "Nellie Bell".:)

Yes, El Dorado was the picture I was thinking of. Getting harder and harder to remember the names of all these movies. Getting very scary.

Hey! Speaking of riverboats, Yancy Derringer wasn't bad.:)

Paco said...

When I was young, I actually had a Yancy Derringer belt (there was a little derringer in the buckle).

My brother had a Zorro costume.

Yojimbo said...

I had a Cisco Kid costume.

And good grief! We forgot Hopalong Cassidy! How on earth could I forget "Hoppy"!

bruce said...

Jet Jackson had neat pocket communicators, with built in geiger counters!