Friday, June 3, 2011
RIP: JAMES ARNESS
James Arness, who burnished the legend of America’s epic West as Marshal Matt Dillon, the laconic peacemaker of Dodge City on “Gunsmoke,” one of the longest-running dramatic series in television history, died on Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.
A family spokeswoman, Ginny Fazer, confirmed the death. Mr. Arness was terribly shy and had almost no training as an actor. A wartime leg wound made it painful for him to mount a horse. But he became the best-known tin star of his era, portraying the towering, weathered marshal for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975. He also made some 50 films and television movies, mostly westerns, in a career that stretched across five decades.
To a generation of television viewers, Mr. Arness and “Gunsmoke” embodied a new, more adult vision of the mythic Old West: a quiet, vulnerable lawman facing not stereotyped villains and clichéd situations but a chaotic frontier freighted with moral judgments and occasional failure. He might be too late to stop a killing. He could save a girl from kidnappers, but not from her father’s brutality.
Mr. Arness was ideal for the part, a 6-foot-7 giant whose stoic personality was remarkably like his character’s. He had been reared in a family of Norwegian descent in Minnesota, an outdoorsman who loved fishing and hunting. He came home from World War II a wounded, decorated and aimless veteran. He worked menial jobs, tried radio and was collecting veterans’ benefits when he drifted to Hollywood.
He developed slowly, appearing in 30 movies before his mentor, John Wayne, rejected the Dillon role and recommended him instead. “Gunsmoke,” which began in 1952 as a radio show with William Conrad, landed on the CBS television network as a half-hour black-and-white drama set in a raw Kansas town in 1873.
“He’s a gunman, Doc,” Dillon says. “He has got to be eliminated.”
The supporting cast was a snug, Platonic family, stock but multilayered characters who spent much time talking: the beer-drinking philosopher, Doc Adams (Milburn Stone); the careworn Long Branch saloonkeeper, Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), her love unrequited; and the lame sidekick, Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver). Characters and actors came and went in tales that often focused on travelers passing through on their way west.
“Gunsmoke” was not an instant success. But from 1957 to 1961, when it became a one-hour program, it was the top-rated show on television, seen every week by 40 million Americans and millions more in Britain, where it was called “Gun Law.” It bred dozens of copycats, including “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “The Rifleman” and “Bonanza.”
The ratings declined until 1967, when color and a new time slot sent it back into the Top 10 until the 1973-74 season. It was still in the Top 30 when it was canceled in 1975. In its 20-year run, there had been 635 episodes. Mr. Arness had been in the saddle for all of them, and would ride again through decades of reruns and sequels.