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Gunsmoke Legend Arness Dead At 88

3 June 2011 12:06 PM, PDT | WENN | See recent WENN news »

Legendary TV cowboy James Arness has died, aged 88.

The actor played Marshall Matt Dillon in beloved TV western series Gunsmoke.

The Minnesota-born World War Two hero was the older brother of actor Peter Graves, who encouraged Arness to seek out a career in showbusiness after he was discharged from the army with leg and foot injuries sustained in battle.

He became an announcer at a Minneapolis radio station and later found fame in Hollywood after following a friend out to Los Angeles to find work in the movies.

He was studying theatre when he was cast as Loretta Young's brother in 1947 film The Farmer's Daughter.

His first wife, actress Virginia Chapman, encouraged him to take his acting more seriously after he received glowing reviews for his performance in his debut and he became a staple villain in films like The Thing from Another World (1951).

Arness' career really took off when he was discovered by John Wayne's agent Charles K. Feldman, and the two TV and movie cowboys became firm friends. Arness starred alongside Wayne, his mentor, in a series of 1950s films and it was the acting legend who recommended his pal for the role of Dillon in Gunsmoke, which became America's longest-running dramatic series.

When the show was cancelled in 1975, Arness joined the cast of TV miniseries How The West Was Won and then turned leading man again in cop drama McClain's Law in the early 1980s.

He retired from showbusiness in the mid-1990s, after appearing in the final Gunsmoke TV movie.

He and his first wife had three kids together - one daughter, Jenny Lee, committed suicide in 1975. Arness divorced Chapman in 1960. He wed Janet Surtrees in 1978.

Among his many accolades, Arness was appointed an honorary United States Marshall in recognition of his unique contribution to "the image and traditions of the U.S. Marshall's Service". He was also inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1981.

He also received the Bronze Star; the Purple Heart, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge for his army service during World War Two.

Flowers will be placed on the actor's Hollywood Walk of Fame star on Friday afternoon. »

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James Arness: 1923 - 2011

3 June 2011 10:21 AM, PDT | IMDb News

James Arness, the lanky actor best remembered for his portrayal of the iconic Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running American TV series "Gunsmoke", passed away on Friday of natural causes. He was 88.

He was born James King Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the eldest son of Ruth and Rolf Aurness, older brother to Peter, who later changed his name and gained fame as actor Peter Graves. James spent his formative years in Minneapolis before heading to university at Beloit College, dropping out of classes there when he received his draft notice in 1943. Having dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot, he was disappointed to discover that his 6'7" height disqualified him from aviation. Instead, he served in the Army as an infantry rifleman, but his Army career ended with a medical discharge after being seriously wounded during combat in Anzio, Italy, injuries which earned him a Purple Heart. While recovering, he was visited by his brother Peter, who encouraged him to enroll in the University of Minnesota's radio training course. James took his brother's advice, and a career as a Minneaoplis radio announcer followed.

After spending time as a successful disc jockey, James and a friend headed to Hollywood to try their luck at acting. James won a contract with RKO pictures, where he made his first onscreen appearance as Loretta Young's brother in 1947's The Farmer's Daughter. It was at this time that the studio officially changed his surname to "Arness". He continued to act in local theater productions, and during his time in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Candida he met and married his leading lady, Virginia Chapman. The couple would have three children, Rolf, Jenny and Craig, and remained married until 1960, when they divorced. Simultaneously, his film career was slowly gaining momentum, his height winning him parts in science fiction classics The Thing from Another World and Them!

It was his role in another play that caught the attention of Charles K. Feldman, who introduced Arness to his client John Wayne. Wayne, impressed with the young man, signed him to a three year contact that would determine the direction of the rest of Arness's career. When, in 1955, Wayne suggested him for the lead in a new television show, Arness was hesitant to accept the role, concerned that an appearance on TV might hinder his film career. He reluctantly took the role, however, and would play Marshal Matt Dillon, who honorably maintained law and order in Dodge City on "Gunsmoke" for the next twenty years until the show's cancellation in 1975. The show held the record for the longest-running American television series until 2010, when it was surpassed by The Simpsons. After the cancellation of "Gunsmoke", Arness returned to TV in another western "How the West Was Won", as a detective in "McClain's Law", and appeared in TV movies "The Alamo" and "Red River". He reprised the role of Marshall Dillon in four TV movies between 1990 and 1994, before officially retiring from acting in 2001.

He is survived by his wife Janet Surtrees, who he married in 1978, and his son Rolf Aurness. He was preceded in death by his parents, his daughter Jenny Lee Arness in 1975, his son Craig Aurness in 2004, and his brother Peter Graves in 2010. »

- Heather Campbell

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