James Arness, ‘Gunsmoke’ Star, Dies at 88

Towering actor played Marshal Matt Dillon for 20 years

"Gunsmoke" star James Arness has died. 

The television icon was 88 and was best known for his role as the straight shooting Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running Western series. No cause of death was given. 

After the weekly drama wrapped its run in 1975, Arness reprised the role in five made-for-TV movies from 1987 to 1994. It was a part that the actor was only able to secure after CBS' first choice for the role, John Wayne, passed. 

The Minnesota-born Arness became famous for his portrayal  of a lawman who was slow to anger, but occasionally forced to resort to violence to protect Dodge City. In fact, the 6 foot 7 actor seemed to inform his performance as the upstanding Dillon with his personal wartime experiences.

Before entering the entertainment business, he served as a rifleman during World War II. During his military service, Arness was wounded in combat in Italy and received both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. 

Arness broke into Hollywood playing supporting roles in the 1947 drama "The Farmer's Daughter" and the 1951 science-fiction film "The Thing from Another Planet." But those roles were only a warm-up for his "Gunsmoke" turn. 

From 1957 to 1961, "Gunsmoke" was television's number 1 rated show. By 1967, however, shifting tastes made the series seem anachronistic and ratings had fallen precipitously. In response, CBS threatened to cancel the show, but a campaign on the part of irate viewers saved the series from the chopping block. 

Post-"Gunsmoke," Arness starred in "How the West Was Won," which debuted as a mini-series in 1977 and became a full series that aired in 1978 and 1979. He also appeared as a vengeful cop in the short-lived "McClain's Law" from 1981 to 1982. 

Arness' brother, the actor Peter Graves, died last year. 

He is survived by his wife, Janet; two sons, Rolf and Jimmy; and six grandchildren.