James Arness, the iconic TV actor who rode "Gunsmoke" into history as the longest-running drama in primetime, has died. He was 88, and according to a statement on his website, passed from natural causes.
Almost as much as Lucille Ball and Walter Cronkite, Arness virtually defined CBS during a two-decade run when the network was omnipotent, and for many of those years, so was his series.
He was a tall, powerfully built actor in the mold of John Wayne - a mentor and personal friend - and Gary Cooper. His character, Matt Dillon, became one of the most famous characters ever, and personified a genre that is now all but extinct - the western.
In a statement yesterday, CBS said, A true television legend has passed but will never be forgotten. James Arness will always be remembered as one of the biggest stars in the history of television, playing an iconic role on the medium’s longest running prime time drama ever."
In fact, "Law & Order" - also now gone - tied "Gunsmoke" at 20 seasons, but the western remains unsurpassed in the number of total episodes - 635. "Gunsmoke," which launched Sept. 10, 1955 ending Sept. 1, 1975, aired on three nights, Saturdays, Mondays and Tuesday.
But it was Saturday where the institution, and habit, was born. The show was the top-rated series on TV from 1957 through 1960, and toppled by "Wagon Train" and "Bonanza" on NBC the following year.
"The secret of its great longevity is that he just fit that role so perfectly," said Jim Byrnes, a veteran "Gunsmoke" writer of 37 episodes, who was also writer and producer of the series, "How the West was Won," in which Arness also starred. "He was a hoot - a funny, funny guy who had a great sense of humor and a laugh you'd never forget. He was a great pleasure to be around."
Vincent McEveety, one of TV's great directors of the crime procedural - from "The Untouchables" to "Gunsmoke" to "Diagnosis Murder" - said yesterday, "this man was the kindest person I've ever worked with in the motion picture business. He was a very talented actor, and very professional, but most of all he was a joy to be with. He was trully a joy and that's how I'll remember him, and always think of him as being the kind of person who was kind to everyone."
Born in Minneapolis in 1923, Arness - his birth name was Aurness, of Norwegian origin, and he later dropped the"u" at the suggestion of a producer - was drafted by the Army when he was a student at Beloit College in 1943. He joined the infantry and was immediately shipped to North African, then to Italy, where he went ashore at Anzio with the 5th Army in early 1944.
After just two weeks, Arness was shot in the leg after passing German gun nest, and was sent back to the states. While in an Army hospital, his brother, Peter Graves - who took the last name of another branch of the family family - suggested he go into radio.
Arness did, in Minneapolis, but a short time later went to Hollywood with a pal. He almost immediately landed a role in an RKO picture with Loretta Young, "The Farmer's Daughter."
While a huge break, the biggest in his career came a few years later when John Wayne's agent attended a play he was performing in. Wayne hired him as a contract player for his production company, Republic Pictures, where the two became friends.
By the early '50s, CBS had decided to spin a TV series out of the hit radio drama, "Gunsmoke," and began casting for lead actors for the role of Marshall Matt Dillon of Dodge City, played on the radio by William Conrad.
The network wanted Wayne, who suggested Arness instead. But Arness had decided on a big screen career, and turned down the network. Arness later recalled in an interview with the TV Academy of Arts & Sciences "that I guess they then called Duke and he called me in and he said, 'look, you'd be crazy not to take this thing...'"
"Gunsmoke" was something of a network gamble in 1955; most westerns up until that time were produced for kids, while this series was conceived as something of a "character study" for adult audiences.
Dillon was to be a not entirely infallible law enforcer, and producers worked hard at developing his human dimensions in interactions with characters like Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) who owned the Long Branch saloon, or his trusty deputy, Chester Goode, played in the early years by Dennis Weaver.
Ben Costello, author of "Gunsmoke: An American Institution," said "they had the best writers, directors and biggest (guest) stars. It's not everyday that you'd get someone like Bette Davis to call her agent and say, 'get me on 'Gunsmoke." (She appeared in a 1966 episode called "The Jailer.")
By the mid-70s, TV audiences had long moved on to other obsessions, but after CBS finally cancelled the show, five "Gunsmoke" movies would air in later years. Arrness starred in each.
According to an obit in the LA Times, Arness' 1948 marriage to actress Virginia Chapman ended in divorce in 1958. They had three children: Rolf Aurness, winner of the 1970 World Surfing Championship; Craig Aurness, a photographer, who died in 2004; and Jennie Aurness, who died in 1975. He is survived by his wife, Janet; two sons, Rolf and Jimmy; and six grandchildren. His brother, actor Peter Graves, died in March 2010.