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.