05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Only a few living men can say they covered the same major league position in four separate decades. Ted Williams, for instance, played left field in Boston. And James Arness played Marshal Dillon in Dodge City.
He strode into the American consciousness in 1955, a quiet man who, though often slower on the draw than the enemy, gunned down evil on Dodge City's main drag and walked away to keep his town safe for another Saturday night. He held Dodge and Gunsmoke together until 1975, when the longest-running drama in TV history finally fell, then rose from Boot Hill for a one-shot revival in 1987. Gunsmoke was the top show in the land four of those years and among the most popular for the rest, mainly because Dodge was richly blessed in its population. There was deputy Chester, eager, whiny, but true, played by Dennis Weaver. When he limped away there was Festus, mangier, goofier but just as true—Ken Curtis. There was Doc, played by good old Milburn Stone, snuffly and muffled behind his mustache, who could patch up your wounds with his hands and run you right through with a word. And of course there was Matt's kind, beautifully buxom, ambivalent pal, in the person of Amanda Blake: Miss Kitty was no better than she ought to be, but she never laid a lip on Matt that we could see. Most of all there was Matt and his badge, and his eyes. Set in a sad, equine face, the eyes had seen far too much and survived it all. They thought about the right thing. The voice stayed gentle, but the eyes told you whether there was big trouble afoot or just a little; and if you were not a good person, they told you when you were about to lose your villainy for good. Matt offered us folks at home a weekly rawhide morality play. The time was always 1873. We knew who was good, who was bad, and who was sheriff. He stood 6'6", and every other inch a gentleman, slow to provoke, implacable in pursuit. After an episode of trouble, law, order and decency survived another week and always would.
John Wayne was first asked to play Matt on TV and suggested the 32-year-old Minnesotan, then best known for playing the title role of a cognitive carrot in the sci-fi movie The Thing. But on TV he turned into a towering figure of rectitude. "I remember asking myself," said Amanda Blake, "why doesn't he ever allow himself to be on the other end of the pole? Why not let Matt be wrong once? But Jim would never hear of it." Perhaps he had seen enough frailty. He had sustained war wounds at Anzio, his first wife attempted suicide twice, and his only daughter would die of a drug overdose. In recent years he has lived quietly in Brentwood.
But he can't hide from collective memory, because he left too large a legacy: an idea of what it means to do purely what is right, always, even if it's only in fiction.