James Arness as Marshal Dillon, 1969
(Wikimedia Commons/CBS Television)
When James Arness was born 90 years ago today, his parents could hardly have guessed that someday thousands of babies would be named after him. Or that that name would be “Matt.”
If you know any men born between 1955 and 1975, odds are that at least a few of them are named Matthew. Sure, some of them were probably named after a father or other relative, and some sport the name because it's biblical… but many a Matt born in that time period was named for a certain iconic television lawman.
The name Matthew has been around for millenia – it can be traced back at least as far as the time of Jesus and his disciples. But by the beginning of the modern era, the name was lagging in popularity. From the 1880s through 1940s, Matthew’s average rank was somewhere in the neighborhood of No. 165, according to the Social Security Administration’s list of popular baby names by decade. (In fact, in the 1930s, Matthew didn’t even make the top 200.) Starting in the 1950s, Matthew began moving up the ranks, reaching No. 98 that decade and 36 the next. By the 1970s, Matthew had become the 10th most popular name for baby boys and its popularity continued to increase through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Why the surge in Matts? All signs point to Gunsmoke.
For 20 seasons in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, James Arness played Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon, helping to make the show one of the most popular and beloved TV series of all time. Gunsmoke was the No. 1 show on television for several years of its record-breaking run, and when network CBS threatened to cancel the show, fans lobbied successfully to keep it on the air. And throughout the show’s two decades on television, Arness was its star. His Matt Dillon was the quintessential Wild West lawman: tall and imposing, fighting and defeating bad guys with ease.
Arness’s strong-and-silent lawman must have made an impression on the families that tuned in every week, and when it came time to name a new son, many it would seem remembered Marshal Dillon. Actor Matt Dillon was born during the show’s heyday (though he reportedly was named after a family member), as was my own Uncle Matt. My mom confirms that in the years before her baby brother’s birth the family loved to gather around the TV to watch Matt Dillon keep the peace. I can't help concluding that my uncle was, like so many other Matts of his generation, a Gunsmoke baby.
Arness was so perfect for the role and played it for so long that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part (though William Conrad voiced the character in the radio version). In fact, there's probably only one actor who was as indelibly associated with the Western genre – John Wayne. Despite a popular rumor, it is not true that Wayne was offered the role first. But Wayne did play a part in the show’s creation – he recommended Arness for the Gunsmoke lead, and he introduced the very first episode of the show.
James Arness had other acting roles during his long career, appearing in films and other popular shows like How the West Was Won. But nothing could match the devotion he inspired and influence he wielded as Matt Dillon. If How the West Was Won had caught on, I might know a lot more guys named Zebulon. And if Gunsmoke producers had continued to call the character Mark Dillon – as the marshal was known in the radio pilot – I'd likely have an Uncle Mark.
Written by Linnea Crowther