'Gunsmoke' Legend James Arness Dies at 88

James Arness - b&w cowboy portrait - 1970
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 6-foot-7 actor, who also starred in the 1950s sci-fi classics "Them!" and "The Thing From Another World," thanks fans for their support with a posthumous letter on his website.

James Arness, the tall man who towered over TV screens for 20 seasons as the iconic Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS’ Gunsmoke, has died. He was 88.

The 6-foot-7 actor, who also starred in the 1950s sci-fi classics Them! and The Thing From Another World, passed away of natural causes Friday in his home in Brentwood, according to his business manager, Ginny Fazer. His death comes 14 months after his brother, Mission: Impossible actor Peter Graves, died of a heart attack at age 83.

Arness’ official website posted a letter from the actor on Friday that he wrote with the intention that it 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 the stoic Marshal Dillon, Arness kept the peace in rough and tumble Dodge City, Kan., on Gunsmoke, which aired on CBS from September 1955 to March 1975 for a total of 635 episodes. It set a record for the longest-running, live-action primetime series by seasons, since tied by NBC’s Law & Order.

Arness’ 20-year primetime stint is another record, since tied by Kelsey Grammer’s two decades years as the character Frasier Crane on two shows, Cheers and then Frasier.

Said a statement from CBS on Friday, “Our network headquarters at CBS Studio Center in Studio City looks out at Stage 3, which was home to Gunsmoke’s “Dodge City.” All of us here today tip our hat in that direction for everything Mr. Arness contributed to Gunsmoke, to CBS and to the medium we all love.”

Arness was born James King Aurness in Minneapolis on May 26, 1923. He served in the army during World War II, was wounded in his right leg and received the Purple Heart.

On the advice of Graves, Arness applied for and earned a job as an announcer for a radio station in the Twin Cities, then moved to Los Angeles and landed a role as Loretta Young’s brother in the 1947 film The Farmer's Daughter.

After starring in the title role as a thawed-out alien bent in eating humans in The Thing, he was spotted by John Wayne, who signed him to a contract with his production company, Batjac Prods. The actors worked together on such films as Big Jim McLain (1952), Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953) and The Sea Chase (1955).

Wayne recommended Arness for the role of Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, which was coming to TV after beginning as a radio program in 1955.  (The show ran on radio until 1961, with the rotund William Conrad voicing the lawman.)

“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, created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston, was TV’s No. 1 ranked show from 1957-61. The ratings declined when CBS expanded the show to an hour, and in 1967, the network planned to cancel the series. However, widespread viewer reaction prevented its demise.

Instead, CBS axed Gilligan’s Island and moved Gunsmoke to Mondays, where the show regained its ratings form. But in 1975, still ranked among the top 30 shows, Gunsmoke was canceled and replaced by Rhoda and Phyllis, a pair of spinoffs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The cast was stunned by the cancellation. “We didn’t do a final, wrap-up show,” Arness, who was nominated for three Emmys for Gunsmoke, told the Associated Press. “We finished the 20th year, we all expected to go on for another season, or two or three. The (network) never told anybody they were thinking of canceling.”

Arness made five Gunsmoke telefilms from 1987 to 1994. The actor also starred as Zeb Macahan, who leads his family across the American West, in the popular miniseries ’70s How the West Was Won, which was based on the 1962 MGM film (Arness played the James Stewart character).

Arness’ final TV series, the NBC police drama McClain’s Law, aired from 1981-82.

Survivors include his wife Janet, sons Rolf and Jimmy and six grandchildren. Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to United Cerebral Palsy.