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James Arness dies at 88; TV's Marshal Dillon on landmark 'Gunsmoke'

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James Arness is best known for his role as Marshal Matt Dillon in 'Gunsmoke,' one of the longest-running prime-time series in network TV history. He was a towering symbol of frontier justice in the series that broke the mold for TV westerns.

Arness died of natural causes at his home in Brentwood, said family spokeswoman Ginny Fazer.

"Gunsmoke" debuted Sept. 10, 1955, on CBS 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, 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 feet 7, Arness was a bigger-than-life actor who amply 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," 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."

Arness was nominated for Emmys three times during the show's early years. Like John Wayne on the big screen, Arness was an imposing presence on the small screen.

"I absolutely believe any pantheon of enduring, well-crafted and memorable television characters would have to include James Arness," David Bushman, then the television curator at what is now the Paley Center for Media in New York, told The Times some years ago. "He became part of the national psyche."

"Gunsmoke" had been a groundbreaking hit radio show, with William Conrad providing the authoritative voice of Matt Dillon, for three years when CBS began looking for an actor to star in the TV version.

At the time, Arness, a Minnesota native and World War II Army combat veteran, had amassed a string of film credits, including playing the alien monster in the 1951 science-fiction classic "The Thing From Another World." He also co-starred in the 1954 sci-fi thriller "Them!"

Then under contract to John Wayne's production company, Arness also appeared in four pictures starring Wayne: "Big Jim McLain," "Island in the Sky," "Hondo" and "The Sea Chase."

Fearful that starring in a television series would damage his fledgling movie career, Arness agreed only reluctantly to test for the part of Dillon; he was the last of a sizable number of actors who were auditioned for the role.

When CBS offered him the part, Arness hesitated in signing the contract. But Wayne urged him to take the role, saying it was a tremendous break.

To give Arness and "Gunsmoke" a publicity boost when it debuted, Wayne provided an on-camera introduction in which he praised the new TV western series for being honest, adult and realistic.

"I knew there was only one man to play in it, James Arness," Wayne told viewers. "He's a young fella and may be new to some of you. But I've worked with him, and I predict he'll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you've had to get used to me."

Arness became a welcome visitor in the homes of millions of viewers — as did the show's supporting cast members: Dennis Weaver as Dillon's stiff-legged deputy, Chester Goode; Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell, the proprietress of the Long Branch Saloon; and Milburn Stone as the weathered and wise Doc Adams.

Boyd Magers, editor and publisher of Western Clippings, a western film publication, attributed the show's enduring popularity to the strong writing, direction and ensemble cast. Indeed, the focus would often be on the show's various regular characters and guest stars.

"Arness, in particular, said, 'Let's move it off of me,' " Magers told The Times some years ago. "He didn't have this star complex. He let the other people have an episode to themselves. So you didn't get tired of one character, and they were all good, well-rounded characters because of this strong writing."

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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