'Gunsmoke': How Did James Arness Die?

James Arness, who played Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, died on June 3, 2011, at age 88 from natural causes. A family spokesman confirmed the news to the New York Times following his death. Gunsmoke was the longest-running primetime television drama in television history, tied with the original Law & Order, until Law & Order: Special Victims Unit broke the record when its 21st season debuted in 2019. Arness played the marshal in all 20 seasons of Gunsmoke, as well as several made-for-TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Arness was born on May 26, 1913, in Minneapolis and was the older brother of Mission: Impossible actor Peter Graves. Arness, who stood 6 feet, 7 inches, hoped to serve in World War II as a pilot, but his height made that impossible. Instead, Arness was drafted into the Amy and was wounded in the Battle of Anzio. He was honorably discharged in January 1945 and received several medals for his bravery, including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the World War II Victory Medal.

After the war, Arness turned his attention to a career in the media. He served as a radio announce for a Minneapolis radio station until he decided to hitchhike to Hollywood to star in films. He made his film debut in The Farmer's Daughter, playing Loretta Young's brother. Arness would become associated with Westerns, but his breakthrough role was in the 1951 science fiction movie The Thing from Another World. After that film, Arness mostly focused on Westerns and co-starred with John Wayne in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, and The Sea Chase.

In 1955, Arness was cast as Matt Dillon when Gunsmoke made the transfer from radio to television. There was a rumor that Wayne was offered the part, but that is not true, according to Snopes. In reality, Wayne suggested Arness after their work together. Arness went on to star in every season of Gunsmoke as Dillon until the series ended in 1975. He later played the character in five made-for-TV movies that aired between 1987 and 1993. The last movie, One Man's Justice, was Arness' final performance. Arness also starred in the TV adaptation of How The West Was Won from 1977 to 1979.

Arness was married to Virginia Chapman from 1948 to 1963 and married Janet Surtees in 1978. Chapman and Arness adopted son Craig, who died in 2004, and were parents to daughter Jenny, who died in 1975, and son Rolf. Arness' remains are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.