James Arness, the 6-foot-6 actor who towered over the television landscape for two decades as righteous Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke," died yesterday. He was 88.
Arness' official website posted a letter yesterday that Arness wrote to be posted posthumously: "I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends," he said.
"I wanted to take this time to thank all of you for the many years of being a fan of 'Gunsmoke,' 'The Thing,' 'How the West Was Won' and all the other fun projects I was lucky enough to have been allowed to be a part of. I had the privilege of working with so many great actors over the years."
As U.S. Marshal Dillon in the 1955-75 CBS Western series, Arness created an indelible portrait of a quiet, heroic man with a dedication to justice.
The wealth and fame he gained from "Gunsmoke" could not protect him from tragedy in his personal life: His daughter and his former wife, Virginia, both died of drug overdoses.
The actor was 32 when friend John Wayne declined the lead role in "Gunsmoke" and recommended Arness. Afraid of being typecast, Arness initially rejected it.
"Go ahead and take it, Jim," Wayne urged him. "You're too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don't want a big lug like you towering over us. Make your mark in television."
"Gunsmoke" became the longest-running dramatic series in network history until NBC's "Law & Order" tied in 2010.
He was born James Aurness in Minneapolis (he dropped the "u" for show-business reasons). His brother Peter changed his last name to Graves and went on to star in the TV series "Mission: Impossible."
Arness left home at age 18, hopping freight trains and Caribbean-bound freighters. He entered Beloit College in Wisconsin, but was drafted into the Army in his 1942-43 freshman year. Wounded in the leg during the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy, Arness was hospitalized for a year and left with a slight limp.
He moved to Hollywood in 1946 at a friend's suggestion. After a slow start in which he took jobs as a carpenter and salesman, a role in MGM's "Battleground" (1949) was a career turning point. Parts in more than 20 films followed, including "The Thing," "Hellgate" and "Hondo" with Wayne. Then came "Gunsmoke," which proved a a multimillion-dollar boon for Arness, who owned part of the series.
The cancellation of "Gunsmoke" didn't keep Arness away from TV for long: He returned a few months later, in January 1976, in the TV movie "The Macahans," which led to the 1978-79 ABC series "How the West Was Won."