The job of Dodge City peacekeeper is proving to be one of the most desirable assignments around.
Several top-flight actors are in the running to play Marshal Matt Dillon, the lead lawman in CBS Films' big-screen adaptation of the classic Western television show "Gunsmoke" that starred James Arness.
As incarnated first on the mid-century radio serial and later in the CBS prime-time hit, Dillon is the Western hero charged with maintaining law and order in a period Kansas town filled with colorful vagrants, misfits and desperadoes. He carries on in these adventures with the help of town physician Doc Adams and tavern owner Miss Kitty Russell.
The studio is high on Pitt, who with his turn in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is one of the few boldface names to star in a Western. Reynolds, who is believed to like the Dillon role, is also on the studio's list. After recent lighter turns, Reynolds has remade himself as an action lead, preparing to shoot the titular role in "The Green Lantern," about the magic-ringed superhero who attempts to keep global peace.
Several other actors are said to be in the mix for the Dillon part, which offers the dual appeal of playing an action hero who also has depth and period cachet. But complicating the situation is the fact that a director has not signed on yet, with CBS Films talking to filmmakers concurrent with its casting discussions. (Typically, a director is attached before an actor comes on board, except for the rare instance in which a star drives a project forward.)
Arness played the role of Dillon for 20 years on the small screen. It's worth noting that he got the role after a bake-off of sorts too, besting William Conrad, who played the character in the radio version and who was said to be disappointed for many years after losing out to Arness on the television part.
Gregory Poirier, who wrote "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," has written a draft of the "Gunsmoke" feature script, which the studio is said to like.
The fledgling CBS Films is keen to develop an action tentpole that also has built-in name recognition and sees "Gunsmoke," which it owns as part of its television library, as fitting the bill. Studios in general have a growing penchant for taking classic tales and giving them a modern action sensibility -- as Warner Bros. did, to strong box-office effect, with Sherlock Holmes at Christmas.
CBS Films wants to contemporize the look and feel of "Gunsmoke" while maintaining the period American West setting, though some observers have asked whether modern theatrical audiences will have an appetite for Westerns.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Buck Taylor (l.), James Arness, Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis in "Gunsmoke." Credit: Los Angeles Times