James Arness became a virtual real-life hero to millions as the brave and gallant Matt Dillon, the marshal of Dodge City, on the landmark CBS western series "Gunsmoke."
In a 2001 memoir, the 6-foot-7 actor wrote of a happy childhood growing up with his younger brother, actor Peter Graves, in Minneapolis.
During World War II, Arness won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart as a private in the 3rd Infantry Division. After the war, he had roles in the sci-fi movies "The Thing" and "Them!"
His acting career got a boost when he joined John Wayne’s production company. When Arness wavered on taking the Dillon role, Wayne gave him a nudge.
"I went to see Duke and he said, ‘Hey, take this. Do it. You'll get a lot of experience. The whole world will get to know you.’ He talked me into it, and thank God he did.”
Arness was nominated for an Emmy three times for his role as the law-loving marshal, but never won. The cast also featured Amanda Blake as the Long Branch saloonkeeper, Miss Kitty; Milburn Stone as Doc; Dennis Weaver as Chester; and Burt Reynolds as the half-Native American blacksmith Quint Asper.
"James Arness and I are the last of the Mohicans," said Reynolds, who appeared on the show from 1962 through 1965.
Arness made "Gunsmoke's" Dodge City a set like no other, Reynolds said.
"You know, the stars don't go to lunch with the day players and the day players don't eat with the extras,” he said. “Jim Arness just tore that all to hell and everybody was treated very nice. And it does start with the star of the show. 'Gunsmoke' was a very classy show and nobody dared act like an ass or a jerk because Jim wasn't."
Being a member of the "Gunsmoke" ensemble meant you were part of a protective family that love to have fun, Reynolds says. "Most people never realized what a fabulous sense of humor Jim Arness has. If Jim got the giggles, he was gone. Not just for an hour — for the day. It was a wrap. And I could get him once in a while," he says.
One of the strangest things, says Reynolds, was just watching Dennis Weaver and James Arness.
"Before each shot, Dennis would be walking along, and Dennis, you know, was a tremendous athlete — he almost went to the Olympics," Reynolds adds. "And Jim had this terrible limp from catching shrapnel in his leg at Anzio during the war. So the director would say, 'Roll 'em! Action!' And here Jim would be walking without a limp and Dennis would be limping. It was the weirdest thing."
One haunting legacy of "Gunsmoke" was Matt Dillon’s always near-romance with Miss Kitty.
“We used to get a lot of mail from people, especially from the ladies, you know, saying they want to see Matt and Miss Kitty go ahead and get married or something,” Arness said. “The producers kicked that around. I think they felt if you did that, that you would suddenly be going in a different direction. Matt really couldn't go out and do the sort of dangerous stuff he was doing. It would limit the directions and the options you had.”
Arness died June 3, 2011, of natural causes at his home in Brentwood. He was 88.