James Arness Obituary

Gunsmoke actor James Arness has died, leaving behind a letter he wanted released upon his death. He was 88 years old.

James Arness

James Arness, best known for his role as a towering Dodge City lawman in Gunsmoke, died at home in his sleep Friday. He was 88 years old.

Arness left behind a touching letter to his fans with the intention it be posted to his website after his death.

"I had a wonderful life and was blessed with... (so) many loving people and great friends," he wrote.

"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."

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Arness played the iconic role of US Marshal Matt Dillon on the CBS Western series Gunsmoke for an unbelievable 20 years, from 1955 to 1975. His portrayal of a humble, quiet man with an unwavering sense of justice was beloved by millions of fans.

Intensely private, Arness refused most interviews and never discussed his life's biggest tragedies: The deaths of his daughter and ex-wife of drug overdoses two years apart.

In addition to Gunsmoke, Arness appeared in 34 films, 12 television shows and five Gunsmoke made-for-TV movies. He leaves behind his wife of 33 years, Janet Surtees, and a son, surf champion Rolf Arness. Son Craig and daughter Jenny predeceased him, as did his first wife Virginia Chapman.

Image courtesy WENN


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Comments on "Gunsmoke actor James Arness dead at 88"

heather rigg March 25, 2014 | 1:50 AM

just finished james arness autobiography what a lovely true story that is comes across as a kind loveing person to all and his wife that he adored, myself a fan have got all sorts of photos of james arness and the cast signed so much that I still watch gunsmoke every day love it my wish would have been to meet mr arness great actor you will be missed icon forever love heather x x

bruce hart March 06, 2014 | 3:14 PM

I love Gunsmoke and Matt Dillion I watch everyday at 5:30 pm. You see I was in the army from 1959 to 1962 stationed in Germany and missed all of these shows I am seeing now. I am so glad he went onto Bill O'rielly show just before he passed away. RIP Matt

Ken Lynes January 20, 2014 | 4:15 PM

This was one of the best tv series ever done and I agree with several of the posters before me that James Arness played that part to the tee. I always figured he must be a good person as it is pretty hard to really completely fake that as an actor. I liked the earlier 1/2 hour episodes the best as they reminded me of the radio series that I listened to for a good part of my early years. We used to sit around the radio and listen to that deep voiced guy called Marshall Dillon and I was disappointed at first that the same guy did not do the acting on the tv series when it first came out. I guess later on I learned why when I finally saw who had been the voice of Matt Dillon on radio as he had a show called Cannon later on. He certainly did not fit the physical part of Matt Dillon. Those episodes were always giving us a story about justice and how things should be in life. Most all ended up the way most of us would want them to with the right outcomes and justice etc. It had been that way in the great era of westerns in that had preceeded the tv shows and I am ever greatful I lived in those times. I was born in 1939 and so only a generation younger than James Arness. I have lived through some of the best times for movies and tv shows. I dont think they will ever improve on those shows I was priviledged to see in my life. I wish more younger people would think they were worth it to them to watch some of these shows. I would also include Wagon Train in this group of great tv westerns. Thanks a lot for all you gave me Mr Arness.

Joanne Norman January 12, 2014 | 10:27 AM

Thank you James Arness. You made a lot of people happy.I still enjoy the re-runs on a Sunday afternoon. Pity you never got together with Miss Kitty. We were all routing for it to happen.Afriend used to rush home from the dancing school I was at in 1958 to see you but only nw do I realise why. Doc and Festus - all rest in peace.

Dwight December 23, 2013 | 8:18 PM

Many people do not realize that James Arness was seriously wounded at Anzio beach, Italy during World War 2. He had a slight limp from that injury. So for me he was a fine actor and a real life hero because of his service fighting the Germans during WW2. Considering his fame, he was a very humble man, may Jesus watch over him forever.

Thomas Fleming December 17, 2013 | 7:25 AM

Gun Smoke is not only enjoyable, usually a good plot & story but educational. Honesty, fairness & manners are infused in every episode. Something to be learned by the young & old. I'm stuck at home for awhile with a back brace & reliving my youth by watching the old reruns.

Joseph J Clancy Jr August 28, 2013 | 4:36 AM

He was great

Dave June 14, 2013 | 1:35 PM

Now that I am retired I have started to watch Gunsmoke for the first time each day between 1pm and 3pm on TCM.. no TV's in Ireland when I was a small boy in the 50's ! It is my fav time of the day and Matt, Kitty, Doc and even old Festus with his hillbilly drawl take me back fondly to the hey-days of going to the local cinema and the cowboy pictures that a lot of today's " blockbusters" just can't measure up to! You may be gone Matt, but when you walk out on the streets of Dodge at the beginning of each episode, you bring me back to my childhood and the friends I played cowboys with.. some of them have also passed and I sure hope, " Matthew" that they don't call you out in the streets of the great beyond cause nobody will ever take out United States Marshal Matt Dillon!

Dianna Black May 08, 2013 | 6:15 AM

There has never been a television show that I enjoyed any better than Gun Smoke. Matt Dillion was my hero. I thank the good LORD he kept him around for all those years and he gave us many enjoyable hours of entertainment

Brian S May 01, 2013 | 6:25 PM

At 64 i still enjoy watching all the early episodes of Gunsmoke-the 1/2 hour shows with the original cast. Always thought Matt and Kitty would one day get together but guess thats what kept us coming back week after week. Will miss you Mr. Arness

Steve April 29, 2013 | 11:34 PM

I still watch those reruns. I think the one thing "Matt" tought us was not to fight unless we had to.

Janice Mcgee January 18, 2013 | 8:12 PM

I watched Gunsmoke with my Uncle & Auntie when I was a little girl and would walk home after the show usually at night.James Arness started in the year I was born and retired the yr. I got married. Thanks Mr Arness for being in my life.

Peter Frinton December 03, 2012 | 4:02 PM

I met James Arness on New Year's Eve, 1964, at a house party I was attending, put on by his son Craig (RIP), at Sun Valley, ID. Of course the music was a bit too loud, and we were being silly teenagers. In walked DAD- my god he was tall, barely fit through the door- and told us in no uncertain terms to lower the music. Of course we did- pronto! Nobody was going to mess with Marshall Dillon....

BONNIE STARNER June 06, 2012 | 6:39 PM


Joe Hyde October 04, 2011 | 2:37 PM

As a child how many Saturday nights did I strap on my six shooter on and draw against "Matt". Mr. Arness,thank for the many years of Gunsmoke.

Judy Sexton August 29, 2011 | 4:32 PM

I will always love James Arness. In the '50's and on, our whole family loved that show. All of them were good actors, but the star was Arness. God bless you on your journey, You will always be loved and missed.

cherokee neil June 14, 2011 | 12:21 PM

Im a 60 year old woman watched gunsmoke when i was young . just finished buying all the episodes for my collection -WHY CAN TV BE LIKE THE OLD DAYS INSTEAD MOF ALL THIS PERSONAL REALITY STUFF!-----REST IN PEACE MATT-YOU WERE A LEGEND.

Dee Fightmaster June 06, 2011 | 9:13 PM

My husband and I loved Gunsmoke. We named our son Matthew after Matt Dillon and he is now 39 and grew to be a man about James Arness's size. He was a great actor and our sympathy to his family.

Danny l June 05, 2011 | 7:08 PM

What a feeling of loss. He was my childhood hero who taught us to do the right thing no matter how hard it was and to treat all people fair and just.

Lori Needham June 05, 2011 | 3:15 AM

I have watched GUNSMOKE since I can remember, (born in 1959, that's a lot of GUNSMOKE) & I continue to watch it every weekday morning. His GUNSMOKE movies were a pleasant, unexpected treat for me & my family. Mr. Arness was & is a part of my life. R.I.P. Mr. James Arness ?

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