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'Gunsmoke' Star James Arness Dead at Age 88

Friday, 03 Jun 2011 03:43 PM

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor James Arness, who personified the tall, rugged western lawman as the star of the prime-time classic "Gunsmoke," one of U.S. television's longest-running series, died Friday at age 88.

Arness, a Minneapolis native and older brother of the late actor Peter Graves, died of natural causes at his Los Angeles home, said his former publicist, Trina Kaye.

Arness was best known for his 20 years on TV playing Matt Dillon, the U.S. marshal in the dusty wild-west town of Dodge City, Kansas, a role for which he was recommended by his showbiz mentor and friend, the film star John Wayne.

When "Gunsmoke" left the CBS airwaves in 1975, Arness had set the record for the longest-running role played by a single actor in prime time. The feat that went unmatched until Kelsey Grammer tied the record after 20 years of playing psychiatrist Frasier Crane on two NBC comedies -- "Cheers" and "Frasier."

"Gunsmoke," which originated on CBS radio in 1952 with William Conrad as the voice of Matt Dillon, debuted on TV as one of the first in a wave of "adult westerns" that sought to portray gunslingers and cowboys in a way that appealed to grown-up viewers, rather than youngsters.

Although not an immediate hit, "Gunsmoke" climbed up the ratings chart to No. 8 in its second season and went on to become the top-rated show in all of U.S. television for the next four years, 1957 to 1961.

The show's success helped generate a lot of competition, and at one point the prime-time lineup of network television included more than 30 westerns, but "Gunsmoke" outlasted them all.

The show's cast became one of television's most memorable ensembles of supporting players -- crusty old "Doc" Adams, the gullible, deputy with a limp Chester Goode, played by Dennis Weaver, and whiskey-voiced saloon keeper Miss Kitty Russell, played by Amanda Blake.

Arness, who stood 6-feet-7-inches tall, earned three Emmy nominations for the program over the years.

Before landing his signature role in "Gunsmoke," Arness appeared in numerous films, including "The Farmer's Daughter" with Loretta Young in 1947 and, memorably, in the title part as a space alien in "The Thing from Another World" in 1951.

Arness returned to TV as Matt Dillon in five "Gunsmoke" reunion specials, the last of which aired in 1994 when he was 71. He also was in a TV mini-series "How the West Was Won," a modern police drama "McClain's Law" in 1981, and reprised John Wayne's role in a TV remake of "Red River" in 1988.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Vicki Allen; Editing by Jill Serjeant)

© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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