James Arness, who portrayed iconic TV lawman Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" for two decades, has died in his sleep in his Brentwood, California home. He was 88 years old.
The news came through Arness's business manager, Ginny Fazer, who then released a letter written by the actor with the instructions that it be posted on his official web site on the occasion of his death.
"I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends," he wrote. "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."
The 6'6" actor was urged to take the lead in "Gunsmoke" after friend and fellow western icon John Wayne turned it down.
Running from 1955 to 1975, "Gunsmoke" remains one of the longest-running dramatic series in network history (it was recently tied by NBC's "Law & Order"). Arness's 20 years as Dillon was also only recently matched - this time by Kelsey Grammer, who played Frasier Crane for two decades.
In addition to his icon status in westerns, Arness is also held in high esteem by the sci-fi community, having starred in classics such as "The Thing From Another World" and "Them!"
Although protective of his privacy even in the Hollywood spotlight, Arness couldn't entirely avoid scandal. Both his wife, Virginia, and daughter, Jenny, died of drug overdoses (although only Jenny's was considered deliberate. Virgina's death was ruled an accident).
Arness revisited Dillon in the early 90s, appearing in a series of "Gunsmoke" TV movies.