John Wayne

The Actor John Wayne Was “Too Embarrassed” To Profit From

In the sun-scorched realm of western cinema, there emerges a singular protagonist of unparalleled prowess, the formidable and truly iconic John Wayne. With performances etched into the annals of the American movie industry, Wayne stands as a permanent bastion of the old west, and his professional legacy remains unmarred, even if his personal convictions cast shadows on his reception in the modern world.

In cinematic masterpieces like Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers and the triumphant True Grit, for which he finally clinched the coveted Academy Award for ‘Best Actor’ in 1970, Wayne’s towering presence resonated, and he solidified his status as one of the American silver screen’s all-time greats.

However, as one of the most prominent actors in the industry, it invariably followed that Wayne was offered more projects than he could ever take on, and he was once associated with the television show Gunsmoke, starring James Arness in the lead role. It led to a strange story of how the initial casting went down.

Wayne was already friends with Arness before the latter took on the role of US Marshal Matt Dillon. Interestingly, though, Arness would not have been able to accept the role offer if it weren’t for Wayne agreeing to release him from a contract, an act which came down to embarrassment on Wayne’s behalf.

The two real-life friends had shared the screen in the likes of Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase, and Wayne had put Arness under contract, essentially lending his services to productions like Hellgate, Horizons West, The Lone Hand, and Many Rivers to Cross.

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As far as Gunsmoke goes, it had been rumoured that Wayne was being considered for the lead role. Apart from television never really interesting Wayne, his role as one of cinema’s heroes of the day means there was likely nothing much in the story beyond tittle-tattle and hopeful projection.

Wayne did have a hand in the success of Gunsmoke after he suggested Arness for the role of Matt Dillon. but there was a snag. Without Arness being released from Wayne’s contract, the former was unable to pursue the career opportunities laid out before him. Rather than cash in on any contractual dispute, Wayne sought to let his friend loose.

In the book John Wayne: A Giant Shadow by Carolyn McGivern, Wayne noted, “Jim Arness was under contract to me, but I let him go do it. Being an actor myself, I couldn’t make money off him; I released all my actors from their contracts; I felt too embarrassed to make money out of them.”

Arness wasn’t actually too keen on Gunsmoke himself, but Wayne urged him to take on the role, and in the end, he played Matt Dillon for 20 seasons between 1955 and 1975. But it was all down to the kindness of his friend, The Duke.

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