James Arness Asked Michael Learned For A Date After Their ‘Gunsmoke’ Kiss


Love was almost in the air on the set of Gunsmoke between two giants of television. James Arness and Michael Learned would be forever associated with their usual TV partners, but for just a bit, Gunsmoke united the two as love interests with such success, Arness kept the momentum going and asked Learned on a date after filming.

Arness would star in all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke, joining his character Matt Dillon along a winding journey of endurance and heartbreak—and love. Before she was America’s Mom, Olivia Walton, Learned played a very unique part in the greater Gunsmoke lore, one that not even Miss Kitty was a part of.

Michael Learned played the only character James Arness kissed as Matt Dillon

The early years of television were rife with iconic, dynamite duos, especially the sitcom scene. But Westerns always had Marshal Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty Russell, two opposites attracting, with contrasting personalities that played seamlessly off of one another. For all their chemistry—platonic or romantic—they actually never kissed. In fact, Matt never kissed anyone—except for one character.

The episode “Matt’s Love Story” sees Dillon cross paths with amnesia and with widow Mike Yardner, played by none other than Learned. The episode, which aired on September 24, 1973, saw Arness perform his only on-screen kiss on Gunsmoke, not with Amanda Blake’s Kitty but with Learned.

Sure enough, Arness himself specified, “She’s the only woman Matt ever kissed on screen.” But things went even further, as the 1990 TV movie Gunsmoke: The Last Apache indicates that the two were intimate, with Yardner giving birth to the marshal’s daughter.


Life almost imitated art

Learned was very much aware of this distinction and would echo Arness’s words, saying proudly, “I’m the only woman Matt Dillon ever kissed.” As to her performance, she added, “He called my agent and asked me out on a date so I must have done a decent job.”

Did she take him up on that offer? The most Learned addressed the subject of a possible romance between them was to call Arness “a lovely guy to work with, very laid-back … very modest.”

Learned ultimately married her current husband, John Doherty, in 1988. This union followed a string of three divorces. She got married to her first husband, actor Peter Donat, when she was just 17 years old. This early start would cause Learned much anxiety when the two split and she found herself in uncharted territory. “I was full of fear because I’d been married since I was 17,” she admitted. “Suddenly, I’m alone with three teenagers to raise.”

For Learned, landing the role of Olivia Walton ended up being a life-saving feat. But there’s always room to remember Matt Dillon’s first kiss.