It takes a special kind of lawman to carry on for 20 years in the Wild West of TV.
Matt Dillon, the mythical marshal of Dodge City, stood tall – all 6 feet, 6 inches of him – on “Gunsmoke” from 1955 to 1975. He outlasted dozens of other Western heroes while making history on TV’s longest-running dramatic series, a record that held until NBC’s “Law & Order” tied the CBS Western’s record in 2010.
Through all those gunslinging years, James Arness, who died Friday, kept Marshal Dillon righteous, peace-seeking and, most of all, believable.
By the end of his career, Arness, who was 88 when he died at his home in Los Angeles, seemed almost indistinguishable from Matt Dillon in the audience’s mind.
Arness wrote, and left behind, a simple, straight-from-the-heart farewell which, at his request, was posted posthumously Friday on his official website.
“I had a wonderful life and was blessed with … (so) many loving people and great friends,” he said, then went on to thank his fans.
In life, Arness was a quiet, intensely private man who preferred the outdoor life to Hollywood’s party scene and refused to discuss his personal tragedies (his daughter and his former wife, Virginia, both died of drug overdoses).
The actor was 32 when friend John Wayne declined the lead role in “Gunsmoke” and recommended Arness instead. Arness initially rejected it.
“Go ahead and take it, Jim,” Wayne urged him. “You’re too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don’t want a big lug like you towering over us. Make your mark in television.”