Jody Singer got to do something most people never get to do. She became friends with her childhood hero, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, from the timeless television show "Gunsmoke."
But Singer lost one of her ties to the show this week with the death of the man who played Dillon.
Actor James Arness died in his sleep Friday at his home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 88.
"It just breaks your heart. I knew we'd lose him one of these days," Singer said Friday in a phone interview from her home in Colorado.
Singer said she cried when a friend called to tell her the news.
"He just had his 88th birthday, but I just didn't really expect this," she said. "I felt sad. I lost a cowboy hero. But I also lost a dear friend."
Singer met Arness in 2005, shortly before the 50th-anniversary celebration of "Gunsmoke" in Dodge City. She kept in touch with the actor through letters, phone calls and personal visits to his home in California.
"The first time I met him was when we did the medallion and got his handprints," she said.
Arness' medallion and handprints rest at Second Avenue and Gunsmoke Street by Fidelity State Bank.
Jim Johnson, from Dodge City's Trail of Fame, was also in California when Arness dipped his hands in cement to memorialize his role as Dillon.
"We were out there for two days visiting with them," Johnson said Friday after hearing the news of Arness' death. "We had a wonderful time. They are the most down-to-earth, genuine people you ever met — just very gracious and extremely friendly, unlike so many Hollywood stars."
Singer also had fond memories of that visit.
"It was just really fun to be there when he put his hands in the cement. He had such a good time doing that," she said. "We spent a good portion of the day there. He's just a joyful person to be with."
A memorable visit
Johnson and Singer visited Arness was shortly before the 50th anniversary of "Gunsmoke." But Arness couldn't make it to Dodge for the celebration.
"So they sent his wife, Janet, and his stepson, Jim Surtees. Both of them came to the 2005 celebration of the 50th anniversary, and both of them gave some really moving talks at the symposium that were pretty incredible," Johnson said. "His stepson, Jim, first got to know him — you know he became Jim's stepfather while Jim was at an early age. And the story Jim told was something along the lines of, 'I didn't have a father. All I wanted was a father. Instead I got Matt Dillon.'"
Johnson said Surtees was visibly emotional and shaky when he gave that talk.
Page 2 of 3 - "He was really emotional about it," Johnson said. "It meant that much to him."
While Johnson said he knew Arness would die at some point because of his age and physical condition, the actor's death still caught him off guard.
"It's hard to talk about him in the past tense," Johnson said. "You know, you have to be kind of expecting it. He suffered from a wound he received on Anzio Beach in WWII. I don't know if that's contributing to it. It's all happened too soon."
A legend of Kansas history
James Arness is one of eight men who will be inducted into the inaugural class of the Kansas Hall of Fame. The induction will take place June 17 at the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka.
Arness stands in the ranks along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower; Vice President Charles Curtis; U.S. Sen. and presidential nominee Bob Dole; Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Pizza Hut founders Dan and Frank Carney; and aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
Dodge City resident Charlie Meade, special deputy U.S. Marshal and retired deputy marshal, will represent Arness at the Hall of Fame gala banquet.
Meade first met Arness in 1959, when Walnut Street was changed to Gunsmoke Street.
"James Arness, Amanda Blake and Doc came out and hung our signs for us," he said Friday. "I happened to — I was considerably different at that stage in my life than I am today. I was pretty timid, and I didn't go up and get in the middle of it, but I did get to see him and visit with him for a few minutes."
Throughout the years, Meade got to know Arness better and talk with him more through his work with Dodge City.
Meade is often seen downtown with a pistol at his hip and a bandolier of bullets as a belt. He looks like a classic marshal and gives tours downtown, complete with stories about Arness.
"Every day that I do walking tours down there, I have great stories that I tell about him," Meade said.
In one story, "Gunsmoke" actors Buck Taylor or Morgan Woodward told Meade that when Arness and the crew were filming, people were just drawn to him.
"And one of the stories — I think Buck Taylor told me this story — that when they were studying their scripts getting ready to shoot a 'Gunsmoke' show, why, they would wait until just that morning before they were ready to shoot," Meade said. "But anyway, they would hand James Arness his script. And in 30 minutes, he had it. He had a telegraphic memory. All he had to do was turn the page, and he had it. And they'd been studying for two weeks!"
Page 3 of 3 - Aside from stories, Meade said Arness will always have a special place in history.
"The 'Gunsmoke' show was so great and so good. It had a great story to it every time. There was hardly any profanity. There was people who did get killed, sure," he said. "And there was nothing obscene about it. It would be in any of our television stuff that we have today — would really have to struggle to make a show that would compare to it, in my opinion."
"Gunsmoke" is the longest-running show in TV history, with a total of 635 episodes.
Meade said "Gunsmoke" fans would mourn the loss of Arness.
"It's a sad day, and we would just remember him forever," Meade said.
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