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.