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James Arness, Marshal Matt Dillon on ‘Gunsmoke,’ Dies at 88

James Arness, Marshal Matt Dillon on 'Gunsmoke'
Arness acted in 'Gunsmoke' from its devut in 1955 until the final episode in 1975. Source: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

June 3 (Bloomberg) -- James Arness, who played marshal Matt Dillon for 20 years as “Gunsmoke” became television’s longest-running primetime drama, has died. He was 88.

The actor died of natural causes, according to the Associated Press, citing the actor’s website, which didn’t provide further details.

Arness acted in CBS’s “Gunsmoke” from its 1955 debut until the show’s final episode in 1975. He reprised his role in five made-for-TV movies. Dennis Weaver, who won an Emmy Award playing Dillon’s deputy, died in February 2006.

At 6 feet, 7 inches, Arness played a serious lawman in Dodge City. Off camera, his loud, infectious laugh could bring filming to a halt. He kept to a schedule that let him spend months away from Hollywood as an avid surfer, sailor, skier and pilot.

“A true television legend has passed but will never be forgotten,” New York-based CBS Corp. said today in an e-mailed statement. “James Arness will always be remembered as one of the biggest stars in the history of television.”

Arness was born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Ruth and Rolf Aurness, a salesman for a medical supply company. He later changed the spelling of his name in Hollywood.

His younger brother Peter, also an actor, chose the name Graves for his credits, which included the “Mission Impossible” television series.

Army Draftee

Arness relished outdoor life as a youth, saying he was a poor student and often cut classes in high school. He got his diploma in 1942, Arness said, only because the principal still felt grateful to his grandfather, a doctor from Norway, who’d given her family free treatment during the Depression.

“She told me to get my act together and do something that would make him proud of me,” Arness said in his autobiography. At his mother’s urging, he enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin but was soon drafted by the U.S. Army.

From the start, military training and discipline “gave me a new sense of worth and belonging,” he wrote in his memoir. “Those were happy days for me.”

He was shipped to Naples in December 1943 and was wounded two months later by German machine-gun fire at Anzio. He spent a year in hospitals and rehabilitation for a shattered leg.

Off to California

Discharged in early 1945, Arness returned to Minneapolis and entered a two-year program at the University of Minnesota. Again, he struggled in school. Before long, he took a professor’s advice and transferred to a local school for radio announcers.

After a few months at a local station, he quit to visit California, where he fell in with a beach crowd, learned to surf and took acting lessons. Largely for his ability to mimic a Swedish accent, Arness was hired for a role in “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1947), for which Loretta Young won an Academy Award.

In an audition at the Pasadena Playhouse, Arness met his future wife, Virginia Chapman, who had studied theater at the University of California at Los Angeles. They were married in 1948 and had two children, Jenny Lee and Rolf. Arness adopted Craig, Chapman’s son from a previous marriage.

Arness appeared in 18 movies, including “Battleground” (1949), “Wagon Master” (1950) and “The Thing from Another World” (1951) before signing a contract to work for John Wayne’s production company.

Marital Strife

Wayne barred women from his company, and Arness found that the macho culture created tension at home, where his wife had once guided his career. The marriage ended in divorce.

According to his autobiography, Arness was strong-armed into going on “Gunsmoke.” After saying he feared TV would hurt his film career, the actor said, a television executive warned he might not have any acting career if he didn’t cooperate.

Wayne also urged Arness to accept, saying his film company had no more work for him. Then Wayne made an on-air introduction before the first episode and predicted Arness would become a big star.

Over the years, the actor rented or bought homes near surfing beaches and ski slopes that let him share his outdoor passions with his children. He took pride in the surfing prowess of his younger son, Rolf, who became a World Surfing Champion in 1970 at age 18.

His son Craig, a former National Geographic photographer who became a stock photo agent and then an Alpaca breeder, died in 2004. His daughter died in 1975.

Arness married his second wife, Janet, in 1978.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathryn Harris at kathrynh@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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