Gunsmoke's James Arness Dies at 88, Leaves Behind Heartfelt Letter to Fans

James Arness, who for 20 seasons played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS’ Gunsmoke, died on Friday at the age of 88.

Arness died in his sleep at his home in Brentwood, Calif., his business manager told the Associated Press.

In a letter that he wrote to be posted posthumously on his website, Arness said, “I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends. … 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.”

Having notched 20 seasons, Gunsmoke shares with the original Law & Order the record for TV’s longest-running drama series, though the Western served up 635 episodes to the NBC procedural’s 456. Similarly, Arness’ two-decade run as Dillon is only matched by Kelsey Grammer’s as Frasier Crane (across Cheers and its spin-off).

Cool trivia: Arness took on the role of Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon at the urging of John Wayne, who was originally wooed for the part. “You’re too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don’t want a big lug like you towering over us,” the 6-foot-6 Arness once related Wayne telling him. “Make your mark in television.” And make his mark he did.

Twice married, Arness is survived by his wife of 33 years, Janet Surtees, two sons and six grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brother, Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), who passed away in March 2010.

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22 Comments
  1. maureen says:

    So sad. I love Gunsmoke. I urge anyone who’s never seen it to check it out on the Western channel or TVLand. It really holds up over time. It is one of the greatest shows ever. I would put it at #1.

  2. side3 says:

    A TV legend.

  3. Ed says:

    He was also the brother of Peter Graves, who died March 14, 2010. He’ll be missed

  4. Leah says:

    My dad watches this show in reruns every day.

    How long did bonanza air?

    • Sue says:

      1959-1973 according to imdb.

      • bd says:

        I think imdb says 1955-75.

        I never watched the show til last year! It was fun to read Mr Arness’ blog posts— blogging from a guy who was on a show in the 50s! He was also wounded in ww2 – really badly- a purple heart winner.

        I echo what someone else said- check out this show if you havent. Totally not what I expected, really interesting and well-written. (Though Ive only seen eps from the first 11 or 12 seasons).

        • Brent says:

          Leah was asking about Bonanza, rather than Gunsmoke.

          Gunsmoke is regarded as one of the greatest series even and deservedly so. It is interesting to watch the way that the series developed and changed over the years. Watch shows from the earliest period and the last few years and you can see that evolution.

          As for James Arness, he was a powerful presence, and while not necessarily a “great” actor, he was the right man in the right part. By all reports from his co-stars he was a very giving actor who wasn’t afraid to let other actors take center stage.

          • bd says:

            thanks for catching that brent. my bad.

            I agree about watching the show change; I started watching the episodes that air on “encore westerns”– the early/mid 60s i think–then went back and “started from the start” on dvd. It’s very interesting and youre also watching the development of the medium of TV. I also couldnt help but think “these people had no idea theyd be doing these same roles 20 years later!” and in Mr Arness’ case with the movies, about 40 years later. quite a legacy.

  5. PJL says:

    Watched Gunsmoke it’s entire 20 year run. Matt Dillon is one of the best characters ever on tv. And Mr Arness was a fine man. Still watching on Encore.

  6. Brian R says:

    James Arness was Marshal Dillon and will always be remembered as the best western TV hero and icon.

  7. TaMara says:

    A looming presence in my childhood for sure. And THE THING! He was a big tall guy and it sure seems like it was all heart and talent.

  8. Danny Watson says:

    I was sad when gunsmoke was taken off the air. Today brings another sad time. Mr. Arness was truly a western icon for the movies and tv. Rest in peace my friend.

  9. Renee says:

    RIP Mr. Arness. I remember watching Gunsmoke when I was a kid. I’ll have to check it out now as an adult. I’m at a point were I really miss TV that shows right as right and wrong as wrong and doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. Getting really tired of most heroes being the anti-hero because it’s not cool/trendy to believe in right and wrong.

  10. darclyte says:

    Gunsmoke was already in reruns when I was a kid, but I watched most of them and many other projects that he was in…he was always a fave. Sad to hear. I really think it was classy of him to have that letter published. My only surprise is that while he mentioned his wife, he didn’t mention his sons nor his grandkids. I hope that the lack of a mention doesn’t bring any additional pain to his family along with the loss of him. RIP

    • jason says:

      If you read the article carefully, you would see it was a letter he wrote for his fans. I’m sure he told all his close family how much he loved them. RIP James Arness, you were indeed a legend.

  11. Susan says:

    Another entertainment giant gone. Rest well James Arness, you will be missed.

    I grew up watching Gunsmoke and loved it. Also, How The West Was Won was a wonderful show, I hope its on DVD I’d like to see it again, I would advise younger fans to check it out.

  12. Amy says:

    What a class act. I only saw the reruns, but I remember him as someone who seemed effortlessly larger than life — far more than many actors who posture much harder. He’ll be missed.

  13. Mark Bowersox says:

    I was so saddened to hear the news of the death of this TV icon. James Arness was a remarkable man, who was a non-pretentious actor and a devoted friend to those with whom he worked. I remember hearing a commentary by Dennis Weaver about how Arness paid the medical expenses of someone who worked on the set of Gunsmoke (had some serious ailment). This was a very interesting man. I was very surprised to find out when I read his autobiography (just published a couple of years ago), that he was an avid surfer, who got his pilot’s licence so he could fly to very obscure places where there great waves for surfing. I would urge anyone with an interest in Arness to get a copy of his autobiography. Jim Arness will be missed, but he will live on in his film and TV work. I was also very fond of the brief western series How the West Was Won and the police drama, McClain’s Law in which Arness also starred. RIP.

  14. Ammitt says:

    well now the Duke can relax, he has backup as Heavans sheriff….ri[ big guy….