John Wayne

John Wayne Asked ‘Gunsmoke’ Actor James Arness 1 Question He Didn’t Want to Answer Before Working With Him

Legendary Western movie star legend John Wayne helped make James Arness the notable actor that he became. However, it all came down to one fateful interview that decided their fate to go into business together. Wayne asked Arness one “main” question that he thought was important, but it instantly made the Gunsmoke actor uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he gave the correct answer, as they developed a wonderful working and personal relationship.

James Arness got his start in theater

John Wayne and James Arness. They're smiling and wearing tuxes with Arness holding an award.
L-R: John Wayne and James Arness | Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Long before Arness met Wayne, he started his career in the entertainment industry on accident. He tagged along with a friend to a local theater, where he quickly attracted attention. As a result, Arness gave acting a shot for fun, which he was able to turn into a very successful career for himself.

However, Arness had a difficult time when it came to getting roles in Hollywood. He stood at a tall 6’7″, which intimidated many of the leading men. Therefore, they refused to work with him because they thought it made them look bad. Arness picked up roles in pictures such as The Thing from Another World, but one interview with Wayne would change his life forever.

John Wayne asked James Arness if he drinks alcohol

According to Deseret News, Arness once met with Wayne in a meeting that had him more than a little bit uncomfortable. After all, he didn’t know the type of person that existed behind the tough cowboy aesthetic that the world couldn’t get enough of. Arness met Wayne at his Republic Studio office for the fateful meeting.

“He asked me a couple of questions about my acting,” Arness said. “Then he said, ‘The main thing I have to know, is — do you drink?’ I didn’t want to say, because I didn’t know him at the time; maybe he was a teetotaler. I said, ‘Well, I have been known to take one occasionally.’ We got a laugh out of that, and he put me on the picture, Big Jim McLain.”

Big Jim McLain follows the title character played by Wayne and his partner, Mal Baxter (Arness). They work as investigators for the House Un-American Activvities Committee with the goal of finding the leaders of a local Community Party in Hawaii. However, Jim and Mal are in way over their heads, as they become targets of a Communist boss named Sturak (Alan Napier).

John Wayne convinced him to do ‘Gunsmoke’

There were long-standing rumors that Gunsmoke decision-makers wanted Wayne to play U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. That rumor was dismissed years ago, but what is true is that the Western movie star brought the world Arness. The actor was young at the time and doubted his possible success on television, but the legendary star said, “This is something you should really do.”

Arness initially thought that Gunsmoke would spell the end of his career, but it actually gave it a whole new life. He played the lead character for 20 seasons and five made-for-TV movies, solidifying him as CBS’ biggest star at the time.

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