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 Friday. He was 88.
The actor died in his sleep at his home in Brentwood, Calif., according to his business manager, Ginny Fazer.
Arness’ official website posted a letter from Arness 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.”
The actor was 32 when friend John Wayne declined the lead role in “Gunsmoke” and recommended Arness instead. 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” went on to become the longest-running dramatic series in network history until NBC’s “Law & Order” tied in 2010. Arness’ 20-year prime-time run as the marshal was tied only in recent times, by Kelsey Grammer’s 20 years as Frasier Crane from 1984 to 2004 on “Cheers” and then on “Frasier.”
I grew up with Gunsmoke running forever.