Ben Cooper, Western Icon of 'Johnny Guitar' and 'Gunsmoke,' Dead at 86

Western icon Ben Cooper has died at the age of 86. Cooper, who starred in dozens of Westerns, including Johnny Guitar and Gunsmoke, died in his sleep in Memphis, Tennessee on Monday, Feb. 24 following a long battle with an undisclosed illness, his nephew, Pete Searls, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

"It is with a sad heart that I pass along the news that my uncle and western actor Ben Cooper fought his last gunfight this morning," Cooper's nephew also announced his passing on his Facebook page. "He passed away in his sleep at the age of 86."

According to a 2016 post, Cooper had been diagnosed with dementia and was under "24 hour care." In 2017, according to The Wrap, the actor was moved to Tennessee to be closer to his family, including his two daughters.

After news of his death broke on Monday, fans on social media began to pay tribute to Cooper.

"Even though he wasn't on very long, his character Breck on Gunsmoke is a fan favorite and talked about often in fan groups," wrote one person on Facebook. "He definitely made his mark in the world and we are all the better for it. He will never be forgotten. My condolences to you."

"Sorry for your loss. I loved Ben, May he Rip," added another. "He left us with such wonderful memories. My condolences."

"Enjoyed watching him in the movies. Especially when he and Audie Murphy were to gather," reacted a third fan. "Prayers."

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1933, Cooper made his stage debut when he starred in Life with Father in 1942 at the age of nine. Cooper remained with the production for its entire seven-year run, starring long enough for him to play two of the family's four sons, Harlan and Whitney.

The actor's first screen credit came when he was just 18, Cooper appearing on the TV series Armstrong Circle Theater before singing with Republic Pictures, where he became a staple, appearing in films such as Thunderbirds, The Last Command, and Duel at Apache Wells, among others.

Cooper also starred in Gunsmoke, Tables of Wells Fargo, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and Death Valley Days.

In an undated interview for the Museum of Western Film History, Cooper opened up about his status as one of the western film genre's most notable actors.

"They let me play cowboy, and they paid me [for it]," he said. "I'd ridden horses, I got my own horse when I was 12. I used to jump him bareback. I didn't know they had stuntmen; I'd watch a movie and then practice on my horse until I could do [the stunt]."

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In the interview, the actor also revealed that he practiced his fast draw for 90 minutes a day for four years.

Cooper is survived by his daughter, Pamela, and her family and his sister, Bunny.