James Arness dead at 88

Los Angeles. James Arness, the towering actor best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon, the commanding symbol of frontier justice on the landmark TV Western series ‘Gunsmoke,’ died Friday. He was 88. Mr. Arness died of natural causes at his home in Brentwood, family spokeswoman Ginny Fazer said.
‘Gunsmoke’ debuted on CBS on September 10, 1955, and, with the start of ‘The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp’ on ABC four days earlier, a new era in television horse operas was launched – the adult Western. But whereas ‘Wyatt Earp,’ starring Hugh O’Brian, ended its run in 1961, ‘Gunsmoke’ ran until 1975, far outdistancing its many competitors and becoming one of the longest-running prime-time series in network TV history.
In the process, Mr. Arness became one of television’s most enduring stars, returning as Dillon in a handful of ‘Gunsmoke’ TV movies in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
At 6-foot-7, Mr. Arness was a bigger-than-life actor who filled the boots of the mythic Dodge City lawman in the series, which earned praise for breaking TV Western-genre conventions with its strong dramatic stories and psychologically complex characters.
“Matt” – Mr. Arness once said, “is very human and has all the failings and drives common to anyone who is trying to do a difficult job the best he knows how.”
“Gunsmoke” had been a groundbreaking hit radio show, with William Conrad providing the authoritative voice of Dillon, for three years when CBS began looking for an actor to star in the TV version.

James Arness dead at 88
James Arness.

Immortalized in Toby Keith’s song (“Should’ve Been a Cowboy”) legendary actor James Arness, passed away quietly Friday, June 3, in his Los Angeles celebrity home. Known most for his role as Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke from 1955 to 1975, he was the epitome of a Hollywood cowboy, and also starred in dozens of movies, some as recent as 1994. James Arness – brother of late Mission Impossible actor (Peter Graves) – died of natural causes at age 88. During Arness’s career, he shared screen time with numerous famous actors, including Alec Baldwin, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Weaver, and Charles Bronson. The Minnesota-born actor fit the ideal stereotype for a cowboy, with his quiet demeanor and massive (for the time) 6-foot, 6-inch stature. The cultural icon has a star on the walk of fame, three Emmy Award nominations, a TVLand Nomination and is a 1967 Western Heritage and 1986 Golden Boot award recipient.
Arness landed the Gunsmoke role when John Wayne turned it down and recommended him for the slot. The longest-running television drama, focused on 1873 Dodge City, Kansas, and its lawmen and criminals. At one time during production, there were 30 competitive ‘cowboy’ television shows, and Gunsmoke outlasted them all, with episodes still playing on TVLand. The show was set during a timeframe in which our nation thrived on a green lifestyle, with very little industry and renewable energy coming from the efforts of humans and animals. It was a time in which vegetable gardens and organic methods were the norm for families on the frontier, and virtually every tool and resource was renewed or recycled. The show itself included horses as a staple in its scenes. There are no records of any negative treatment of animals on the show, and the stars seemed to treat them similar to true pioneers of the Old West – as reliable sidekicks.

The news that legendary western star James Arness’ death has saddened a generation. The 88 year old actor’s role as Sheriff Matt Dillon on the record breaking TV series ‘Gunsmoke’ brought the 6 foot 6 star into every living room in America during the heyday of the western.
Arness’ death of natural causes at his home in Brentwood was announced by family spokeswoman Ginny Fazer. And for those of us old enough to remember Gunsmoke on a black and white television, James took a bit of all of us into his sunset. These days the in vogue action TV series just has to have non-stop car chases, gunfire, and/or up in your face sex and violence – but there was a time.
Draw Partner.
My first recollection of Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke dates back into the stone age of television, viewing the opening gunfight segment in my Grandfather’s living room – a weekly tradition, I assure you. Debuting in 1955, Gunsmoke went on to become the longest running and most successful TV series ever. Originally a radio show, Gunsmoke quickly garnered a relatively massive following for the time. When the show was taken off the air in 1975, no other TV icon left such an imprint.
The relatively rare footage below of the opening segment I spoke of features the show intro, a fascinating Dristan commercial, upcoming preview featuring none other than the lovable Festus – played by Ken Curtis – and Amanda Blake as well. Imagine if you will, this opening gunfight scene on an old RCA black and white. It’s 1960 in your Grandpa’s living room – complete quiet and stillness is demanded (this is the newfangled age of TV you know?).
A skinny little 5 year old stands in front of the TV – the only human being alive allowed to get in front of Gunsmoke – he gets into showdown position – eyes narrowed, legs shoulder width apart, hand resting just above his ivory handled Colt 45 (imaginary of course) – then the quick draw from the tenderfoot and Marshall Matt Dillon… “He shot you, you’re dead, sit down and be quiet!” A short lived gunfighter existence, until next week that is.

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