james arness as marshall dillon The Return Of The CDT?

When I blogged about Jack Kevorkian‘s passing this morning, I had NO idea it was potentially part of a CDT (Celebrity Death Trifecta)!  Hard to believe it’s been 6 months since I last blogged about my morbid obsession.  But, they DO tend to happen in threes.  Jack Kevorkian was #1.  Now, we add James Arness from Gunsmoke to the list at #2.  Will there be a #3 this weekend?  Hope not 😦

(Courtesy of  the Associated Press)

James Arness, the 6-foot-6 actor who towered over the television landscape  for two decades as righteous Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke,” died  Friday. He was 88.

The actor died in his sleep at his home in Brentwood, Calif., according to  his business manager, Ginny Fazer.

Arness’ official website posted a letter from Arness on Friday that he wrote  with the intention that it be posted posthumously: “I had a wonderful life and  was blessed with some many loving people and great friends,” he said.

“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.”

As U.S. Marshal Dillon in the 1955-75 CBS Western series, Arness created an  indelible portrait of a quiet, heroic man with an unbending dedication to  justice and the town he protected.

The wealth and fame Arness gained from “Gunsmoke” could not protect him from  tragedy in his personal life: His daughter and his former wife, Virginia, both  died of drug overdoses.

Arness, a quiet, intensely private man who preferred the outdoor life to  Hollywood’s party scene, rarely gave interviews and refused to discuss the  tragedies.

“He’s big, impressive and virile,” co-star Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty) once  said of Arness, adding, “I’ve worked with him for 16 years, but I don’t really  know him.”

The actor was 32 when friend John Wayne declined the lead role in “Gunsmoke”  and recommended Arness instead. Afraid of being typecast, 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.”

“Gunsmoke” went on to become the longest-running dramatic series in network  history until NBC’s “Law & Order” tied in 2010. Arness’ 20-year prime-time  run as the marshal was tied only in recent times, by Kelsey Grammer’s 20 years  as Frasier Crane from 1984 to 2004 on “Cheers” and then on “Frasier.”

The years showed on the weathered-looking Arness, but he – and his TV  character – wore them well.

“The camera really loved his face, and with good reason,” novelist Wallace  Markfield wrote in a 1975 “Gunsmoke” appreciation in The New York Times. “It was  a face that would age well and that, while aging, would carry intimations of  waste, loss and futility.”

Born James Aurness in Minneapolis (he dropped the “u” for show business  reasons), he and brother Peter enjoyed a “real Huckleberry Finn existence,”  Arness once recalled.

Peter, who changed his last name to Graves, went on to star in the TV series  “Mission Impossible.”

A self-described drifter, Arness left home at age 18, hopping freight trains  and Caribbean-bound freighters. He entered Beloit College in Wisconsin, but was  drafted into the Army in his 1942-43 freshman year. Wounded in the leg during  the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy, Arness was hospitalized for a year and left  with a slight limp. He returned to Minneapolis to work as a radio announcer and  in small theater roles.

He moved to Hollywood in 1946 at a friend’s suggestion. After a slow start in  which he took jobs as a carpenter and salesman, a role in MGM’s “Battleground”  (1949) was a career turning point. Parts in more than 20 films followed,  including “The Thing,” “Hellgate” and “Hondo” with Wayne. Then came “Gunsmoke,”  which proved a durable hit and a multimillion-dollar boon for Arness, who owned  part of the series.

His longtime co-stars were Blake as saloon keeper Miss Kitty, Milburn Stone  as Doc Adams and Dennis Weaver as the deputy, Chester Goode.

When Weaver died in February 2006, Arness called it “a big loss for me  personally” and said Weaver “provided comic relief but was also a real person  doing things that were very important to the show.”

The cancellation of “Gunsmoke” didn’t keep Arness away from TV for long: He  returned a few months later, in January 1976, in the TV movie “The Macahans,”  which led to the 1978-79 ABC series “How the West Was Won.”

Arness took on a contemporary role as a police officer in the series  “McClain’s Law,” which aired on NBC from 1981-82.

Despite his desire for privacy, a rocky domestic life landed him in the news  more than once.

Arness met future wife Virginia Chapman while both were studying at Southern  California’s Pasadena Playhouse. They wed in 1948 and had two children, Jenny  and Rolf. Chapman’s son from her first marriage, Craig, was adopted by  Arness.

The marriage foundered and in 1963 Arness sought a divorce and custody of the  three children, which he was granted. He tried to guard them from the  spotlight.

“The kids don’t really have any part of my television life,” he once  remarked. “Fortunately, there aren’t many times when show business intrudes on  our family existence.”

The emotionally troubled Virginia Arness attempted suicide twice, in 1959 and  in 1960. In 1975, Jenny Arness died of an apparently deliberate drug overdose.  Two years later, an overdose that police deemed accidental killed her  mother.


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