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Gunsmoke fans had a deep admiration for actor James Arness after starring as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon for so long. He demonstrated both strength and charm in the role that charmed audiences for many years. However, some Gunsmoke fans lost the illusion when they learned more about Arness over time. Former First Lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson was one of the show’s “biggest” fans until she learned one detail about his personal life.

‘Gunsmoke’ actor James Arness was a patriot

'Gunsmoke' James Arness and Lady Bird Johnson. Arness posing in a black-and-white photo wearing a cowboy hat. Johnson wearing a red peacoat and red lipstick.
L-R: James Arness and Lady Bird Johnson | Earl Leaf/ Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Santi Visalli/Getty images

Before Arness joined the cast of Gunsmoke, he wanted to be a naval fighter pilot. However, his poor eyesight and his staggering height of 6’7″ stopped him from achieving that dream. Nevertheless, Arness still had the opportunity to serve his country when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. Many stars across Hollywood served during this time, but he still had yet to reach his prime.

Arness ultimately left his military service with the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the American Campaign Medal, among other honorable decorations. He started his work in the entertainment industry after he returned home from the service. Unfortunately, he had difficulty making it into Hollywood until he landed his fateful role on Gunsmoke.

‘Gunsmoke’ star James Arness’ political stance disappointed Lady Bird Johnson

It’s impossible for an actor to please every fan over the course of their career, but Arness disappointed one of the “biggest” Gunsmoke lovers around. According to James Arness: An Autobiography, Lady Bird absolutely loved the show. She hated to miss an episode, but when she did, the Army Signal Corps would tape it for her to enjoy at a later time. The lead character of Matt reminded her of a younger Lyndon Johnson, which certainly played into her affection for the show.

Arness wrote that she was “anxious” to finally meet the Gunsmoke star. However, things took a turn for the worst when she discovered his political alignment. Arness was a Republican, but when she found out, she was “crestfallen.” The actor heard that her response was, “How could he?”

The actor and the first lady never met.

He moved on to other Western productions after 20 seasons


James Arness Revealed Which ‘Gunsmoke’ Actor Received the Most Fan Letters, It Wasn’t Him

Arness remained on Gunsmoke from its first season in 1955 all way through its completion in 1975 for its 20th season. He set records along with Milburn Stone for longevity in playing the same characters, but that didn’t mark the end of his career.

Arness remained in the Western genre for both television and feature films. He starred in How the West Was Won and returned to the world of Gunsmoke with five made-for-TV movies. Arness took a step away from the genre as a police officer in McClain’s Law.

Gunsmoke made Arness a household name across America, but his performance as Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won made him a cult icon across European countries. The show was much more popular overseas than in America, especially after it was rebroadcast in many European countries.