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Let James Arness Rest in Peace: Kelsey Grammer Did NOT Match His Iron Man TV Record
June 6, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

James Arness, who died Friday at age 88, was described in some obituaries as playing the same TV series role longer than any other performer in prime time -- until, goes the asterisk, Kelsey Grammer beat his record, though Grammer took two different series to do so. To which I say: Bah, humbug. Arness still owns that crown, and probably always will...

Yes, Grammer technically reached more seasons playing Frasier Crane, with 11 seasons on NBC's Cheers (1982-93) and an equal number on one of its spinoffs, Frasier (1993-2004). [For the other, less successful Cheers spinoff, see 1987's The Tortellis. If you can find it.]


But Arness' 20-season run as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in the CBS Gunsmoke series was an even bigger feat, and shouldn't be considered equal. Equating the two runs, much less giving the more modern star bragging rights, is worse than comparing apples and oranges. Pure and simple, it's bad Grammer.

First, a little history:

Gunsmoke began on CBS in 1955, proudly and effectively introduced by John Wayne. It was billed as the first "adult" Western, and lived up to that billing in the very first episode by having Arness, as the chief peacekeeper in Dodge City, forced into a gunfight with a hot-headed, belligerent, fast-draw fugitive who had come to town with another lawman in pursuit.

The bad guy killed that lawman -- and when Marshal Dillon, the hero of this new TV series, tried to bring him to justice, the bad guy shot him, too, and very nearly killed him.


Matt's friends -- Doc (Milburn Stone), Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Chester (Dennis Weaver) -- nursed him back to health, only to have Matt, more stubbornly than heroically, face the gunman again. The second time around, having figured out the secret to the villain's fast-draw speed and how to neutralize it, Matt won.

When Gunsmoke began, it was only 30 minutes long, the same length as a sitcom, so the Arness-Grammer duel started out as a fair fight. But not really, and it certainly didn't stay that way for long.


-- For the first 11 years of Grammer's TV appearances, Frasier Crane was a supporting character, sometimes only in each Cheers episode for a scene or two. For the entire run of Gunsmoke, from start to finish, James Arness was the star.

-- Although both Gunsmoke and Cheers began as 30-minute programs, Gunsmoke, from 1961 on, was an hour, so Arness was clocking at least twice as much time in his role as was Grammer.

-- Even more tellingly, Gunsmoke began producion in an earlier TV era, when a season's worth of shows meant 39 episodes. Even when it ended, in 1975, its final season featured 24 episodes. When Cheers premiered in 1984, its first season had 22 episodes, the norm for that time.

-- From 1987 to 1994, Arness also starred in five two-hour Gunsmoke made-for-TV movies, reprising his Matt Dillon character in five different TV seasons. That ought to count for something, and break any last claims to Grammer's usurpation.


Put it this way: As the star of the show, James Arness played the same TV character for 20 years in a series, then five more times in two additional decades. He played Matt Dillon in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s and 90s -- a span starting in 1955 and ending in 1994.

Kelsey Grammer, by comparison, played Frasier Crane in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, starting in 1984, and ending in 2004.

So give James Arness a break, please. And give him back the crown.

He deserves it -- now more than ever.

[The first four seasons of Gunsmoke are out on DVD, along with special "50th Anniversary" and "Directors Collection" compilations that span the series' two-decade run. Shop here.]




Sean Dougherty said:

Gunsmoke didn't begin on television in 1955 - it began on radio in 1952. An article like this that purports to show the origins of the show and why it was revolutionary that doesn't acknowledge that its history as "the first adult Western," began on radio doesn't tell the real story.

And if you're going to mention longest period in one role, shouldn't that crown belong to Jack Benny based on your measurement? He was on every year from 1932 to 1965 and then specials until 1974. It was different programs but always called "The Jack Benny Program."

What about Paige Gillman from One Man's Family?

[Sean -- You're right, of course, about Gunsmoke starting on radio -- with William Conrad as Marshal Dillon. My defense here is that I wasn't trying to be all-inclusive, but merely tackling the Grammer-Arness thing that showed up in several obituaries. As for Benny, yes, his streak was amazing, but only crossing over several media. On TV, he didn't start until 1950. But for a guy who had major successes in movies, radio and TV (not to mention vaudeville), Jack Benny is indeed hard to beat. But not impossible... -- DB]

Comment posted on June 6, 2011 2:58 PM

Eileen said:

This reminds me of your analysis of the M*A*S*H Final Episode vs The Super Bowl. M*A*S*H, of course, won.

There is no comparing Jim Arness and Kelsey Grammer, if I might be so bold. Jim Arness truly was Gunsmoke, appearing in nearly every scene. And as you (so rightly) pointed out, the number of episodes and viewing season were so much longer way back when.

I truly thank you for your defense of this great tv institution. I read an article over the weekend which noted all the fine western tv shows that were spawned as a result of the success of Gunsmoke. TV executives didn't think the public would much go for tv westerns, and Gunsmoke truly proved them wrong.

As I said of your M*A*S*H numbers crunch, some records just shouldn't be broken. And again, this is certainly one of them. Thanks for speaking out.

[Thanks, Eileen, as always. If there's a record for Most Loyal and Impressive TVWW Reader, I think you've got it... -- DB]

Comment posted on June 6, 2011 4:23 PM

Stewart said:

Odd that the CBS website has no remembrance of Arness, but it does have a remembrance of Jeff Conaway, whose "Taxi" never appeared on CBS but was produced by Paramount. Shameful.

[Wow. What a great, chilling observation! You're right. Conaway, yes -- Arness, no. Hard to believe. Sad to witness. -- DB]

Comment posted on June 6, 2011 5:12 PM

ken kahn said:

I hate to correct you (well, not really :-) ) but 1984-1993 is 9 seasons (right?), not 11 as you stated.

Otherwise I fully agree with your opinion.

[You're right. I mis-typed. It should be 1982, not 1984. My math is bad. My manual dexterity is worse. And my proofreading skills -- well, they're waful. (Yes, that's a joke. Geez.) -- DB

Comment posted on June 7, 2011 5:55 AM

johnny neill said:

James Arness as Matt Dillon the kind of iconic, legendary perfectly cast and acted character that does not need any record holding title to be remembered by. That said, you sure did a good job quantifying it anyway! I grew up on "Gunsmoke" and would watch it still if it were in syndication.

Comment posted on June 7, 2011 3:47 PM
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Debi Goodman
To me, there is no comparison between Matt Dillion " James Arness" to Kramer's James is awesome I love him. Hes the GREATEST actor of all times his charisma is outstanding I watch Gunsmoke everyday all day long, i was born 1956
Jun 14, 2019   |  Reply
Robert Caoelle
Cheers debuted in 1982, but Kelsey Grammer's character did not appear in any episode until September 1984, when Doctor Crane debuted.////////////1984 - 93 is 9 seasons.
Sep 18, 2017   |  Reply
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