James Arness, who stood for law and order as TV sheriff Matt Dillion in “Gunsmoke,” TV’s longest running drama, died today (June 3) at 88 at his home in Brentwood, Calif.
At the very end, he thanked his fans and assured them he led a “blessed life.”
James Arness the man was every bit as solid and soft spoken as the television character he played. And he was right for the times.
During the show’s run from 1955 to 1975, he was a regular and reassuring figure during two decades of uncertainty, upheaval and change.
In the 1950s, when U.S. and Soviet tensions were at a peak, the country lived under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
James Arness as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke
He embodied the courage and determination of someone who was ready to face whatever evil came his way.
Later, during the 1960s, when the country was torn by the civil rights movement, Vietnam War demonstrations and a burgeoning counterculture, Arness took on a new meaning.
He represented law and order, quiet, dignified, yet ready to draw down on anyone who threatened the peace.
“The first move anybody makes,” he said, with a slight shake of his head during one episode, “I cut you in two.”
His character, Matt Dillon was a reluctant gunslinger. But he had a commanding presence on-screen. He was 6-feet, 6-inches tall.
In fact, the legendary John Wayne recommended him for the show after turning down the part. Arness initially declined as welll, knowing he risked being typecast. But Wayne convinced him to reconsider.
“Go ahead and take it, Jim,” Wayne said. “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.”
Wayne even tape a spot to introduce Arness when the show debuted. He wore full western gear and predicted Arness would be a “big star.”
His television family was rock steady and stayed with him throughout the show’s run.
It was made up of Amanda Blake, who played saloon keeper Miss Kitty; Milburn Stone who played Doc Adams and Dennis Weaver who played deputy Chester Goode.
But his personal life was tumultuous.
He left home at 18 and drifted, hopping freight trains and ocean freighters. He returned home and enrolled in college, but was drafted for military service in World War II. He was wounded in combat in Italy.
He spent a year in a hospital recuperating and forever walked with a slight limp.
He headed for Hollywood in 1946 and appeared in more than 20 films before landing his defining role in “Gunsmoke.”
His younger brother, Peter, joined him and took the name Graves to distinguish himself. He had his own hit television series, “Mission Impossible,” which ran from 1966 to 1973.
Arness, sensing his own mortality, wrote a message which he ordered posted on his Web site following his death.
“I had a wonderful life and was blessed with … (so) many loving people and great friends,” it reads.
Arness continued to act after “Gunsmoke” was canceled, but he was, as he feared, indelibly typecast as the strong, silent marshal.
He reprised the role in five made-for-TV movies from 1987 to 1994.
While Peter, a devout Christian, was married for 60 years to the same wife and raised three children, Arness’s own family life was rocky.
He had two children, Jenny and Rolf, with his first wife, Virginia, whom he divorced in 1963.
Virginia attempted suicide twice, in 1959 and in 1960, before dying of a drug overdose, ruled accidental, in 1977.
She followed Jenny, who died of suicide by a drug overdose, two years earlier.