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Gunsmoke actor James Arness became CBS’ most significant actor when it came to their network programming. He brilliantly played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on the Western television show that audiences loved to watch, running a record-breaking 20 seasons. Therefore, Arness felt it necessary to leave a note for longtime Gunsmoke fans to read after his death, which certainly added to the heartfelt feelings that they already had for the actor.

James Arness’ cause of death was natural causes

'Gunsmoke' James Arness as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, whose death came from natural causes. A black-and-white picture with Arness wearing a cowboy hat, collared shirt, and vest. He's standing in front of a tree.
James Arness as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon | CBS via Getty Images

According to Reuters, Arness died on June 3, 2011, of natural causes at the age of 88 in Los Angeles, California. His business manager, Ginny Fazer, said he was in relatively good health but had “just been fading.”

“No disease, nothing untoward, he just got tired, I guess,” Fazer said.

Arness was born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota to businessman Rolf Cirkler Aurness and journalist Ruth Duesler. He served in the U.S. Army during the draft of World War II, but his bad eyesight and tall stature kept him from his desire to pursue naval fighter piloting. Arness received multiple military decorations for his service, including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. However, his right leg was severely injured during the Battle of Anzio, which stuck with him for the remainder of his life.

He developed a career in acting, but most leading men didn’t want to work with Arness because of his height (6 foot 7). Nevertheless, Western movie star John Wayne saw potential in him. Therefore, he had a part to play in convincing Arness to take the role of Matt on Gunsmoke, which was the most significant work of his career.

James Arness left a note before his death for ‘Gunsmoke’ fans

American Cowboy shared a letter that Arness had his wife, Janet, post online after his death for his longtime fans. He always felt appreciation toward his fans for their support, which especially showed during his years traveling to rodeos and fairs to perform as Matt from Gunsmoke and interact with fans of the show. Read below for the letter that Arness wrote to be shared after his death:

“I decided to write a letter to you for Janet to post on our website in the event I was no longer here. I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends. The best part of my life was my family, especially my wife Janet. Many of you met her at Dodge City so you understand what a special person she is. 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. I was honored to have served in the army for my country. I was at Anzio during WWII and it makes you realize how very precious life is. Thank you again for all the many letters, cards, emails and gifts we received from you over the years. You are and always have been truly appreciated.


Jim Arness”

He last starred as Matt Dillon in ‘Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice’


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Arness played Matt on Gunsmoke for a stunning 20 seasons. The only other actor to do so was Doc Adams actor Milburn Stone, although Miss Kitty Russell actor Amanda Blake wasn’t far behind with a total of 19 seasons.

After Gunsmoke, Arness found another golden opportunity to stay in acting with How the West Was Won playing Zed Macahan. Next, he played Det. Jim McClain in McClain’s Law, which offered a different genre for the Western star.

Before his death, Arness was able to return to Gunsmoke five more times over the course of made-for-TV movies between 1990 and 1994. Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice didn’t bring in the ratings of its predecessors, marking the end of the franchise. However, it was also his final acting role.