The yearly winner of the “Spurs” was chosen by polling the Hollywood Press, much like the Oscar process, and then awarding the trophy to the best Western film or TV actor for the previous year. The “Spurs” were an ornate set of silver plated working spurs that were mounted on a handsome wooden plaque, which was properly inscribed. A unique feature was the fact the spurs could be removed easily and actually worn by the winner. The award was crafted by the top-rated Newman’s Silver Shop in Reno.
It was exactly 10 years, almost to the day, when Arness received his spurs as it was when John Wayne won the inaugural award in 1950. This is relative to the two men since Arness owed his Marshall Matt Dillon role to the efforts of his good friend, Wayne. Initially Wayne has been offered the lead in “Gunsmoke” but felt his movie career was a better future — and he was probably right. His recommendation to the producer was to test Arness for the part, which proved to be successful. As Arness mentioned to us in that 1960 Reno appearance, he once told Wayne that TV was the wave of the future and maybe the “Duke” should reconsider his earlier refusal. According to Arness, or “Jim,” as he preferred to be called in off-screen encounters, Wayne’s response was something like, “I’m physically too big to be squeezed onto a 21-inch screen!” Arness retorted with, “Hell, John, I’m three inches taller than you and I fit on the screen quite nicely!”
At any rate, as Arness notes in his autobiography, which was copyrighted in 2001, Arness states that the initial shot that got “Gunsmoke” off to such a good start was the fact that CBS had gotten Wayne to introduce the first episode, or “pilot,” which was entitled “Matt Gets It.” From that point on and for the next 30 years “Gunsmoke” ruled the airwaves as the top-ranked Western and set the record for longevity.
Reading Arness’s book, a 237-page memoir, that was co-authored by James E. Wise Jr., one gets not only a fascinating tale of multi-faceted life he lived, complete with photos from his private collection, but also a rare peek at the inner workings of Hollywood.
One of the more memorable quotes from the foreword of the book, which was authored by actor Burt Reynolds, reads, “For many years (45 to be exact) I have been asked, ‘What were the best times for you growing up as an actor?’ Without hesitation, I have always said, ‘The two and a half years I was on Gunsmoke.’ They were for me, the best of times. There were many reasons, but the main reason was that it was then I learned how actors on a film should behave. What is meant to say someone is ‘really a pro.’ ”
On “Gunsmoke” Reynolds’ character was that of the village blacksmith and what made his character interesting was that he had Indian blood running through his veins. In his book Arness noted that in one of the early episodes featuring Reynolds that Burt “bared his chest” and that the deluge of fan mail increased tenfold to the studio.
Of course Reynolds left the show and went on to superstardom on the big screen. Another big screen tie-in between the “Gunsmoke” series and Hollywood big names was the number of top performers who stood in line for guest appearances on the show. Some of those included; Ed Asner, David Carradine, Anne Francis, Beverly Garland, Darryl Hickman, Pat Hingle, George Kennedy, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Guy Stockwell, Lorett Swit, Jean Arthur, Lew Ayers, John Drew Barrymore, Richard Basehart, Joe Don Baker, Noah Berry, jr., Ralph Bellamy, Burce Boxleitner, Beau Bridges, Rory Calhoun, Harry Carey Jr., Chuck Conners, John Carradine, Lee Majors, Lee J. Cojob, Andy Devine, Jodie Foster, Michael J. Fox, Sam Elliot, Harrison Ford, Milissa Gilbert, Alan Hale, Dennis Hopper, Ronn Howard, Betty Hutton, Ricardo Montalban, William Shatner and dozens more. In fact the list at the back of the book totals more than 200. Even the redoubtable Leonard Nimoy, best known for his “Mr. Spock” character, appeared in multiple episodes, usually as the “bad guy.”
As we learned when he was in Reno, Arness himself was a very modest, self-effacing individual and downplayed his success, noting that he “was lucky to get such a great part.” However, it is hard to imagine any other actor pulling off the strenuous 20 years on camera as well as he did it. Even today “Gunsmoke” episodes still play well on the Encore Western cable channel. Two regulars that helped give the show consistency and depth are Milburn Stone as “Doc” and Amanda Blake as “Miss Kitty.” In fact, the latter’s Long Branch Saloon is probably the most used set on the series, next would come Matt’s office and then “Doc’s” live-in medical office.
Like any good Western production Matt needed a faithful sidekick and that role was best played by Dennis Weaver as “Chester” and at other times by “Festus” as portrayed by Ken Curtis. As in most stock Westerns the sidekick was a little short of IQ but long on loyalty and occasionally the “hero” of the piece.
The fact that Arness was a man of few words in person is aptly seen in the makeup of his book as he divided it into only six chapters and then devoted a good part of it to others’ memories, comments by guest stars, fan letters, a list of his films (quite long), television and honors and awards. In the latter category he mentions Reno’s Silver Spurs. In fact, the last time I ran person in a Hollywood restaurant several years after the 1960 tribute he came over and said, “Hi, Harry, tell all the guys in Reno that I’m still wearing those Silver Spurs you guys gave me!”
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.