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A self-described drifter, Arness left home at age 18, hopping freight trains and Caribbean-bound freighters. He entered Beloit College in Wisconsin, but was drafted into the Army in his 1942-43 freshman year. Wounded in the leg during the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy, Arness was hospitalized for a year and left with a slight limp. He returned to Minneapolis to work as a radio announcer and in small theater roles.

He moved to Hollywood in 1946 at a friend’s suggestion. After a slow start in which he took jobs as a carpenter and salesman, a role in MGM’s “Battleground” (1949) was a career turning point. Parts in more than 20 films followed, including “The Thing,” `’Hellgate” and “Hondo” with Wayne. Then came “Gunsmoke,” which proved a durable hit and a multimillion-dollar boon for Arness, who owned part of the series.

His longtime co-stars were Blake as saloon keeper Miss Kitty, Milburn Stone as Doc Adams and Dennis Weaver as the deputy, Chester Goode.

When Weaver died in February 2006, Arness called it “a big loss for me personally” and said Weaver “provided comic relief but was also a real person doing things that were very important to the show.”

The cancellation of “Gunsmoke” didn’t keep Arness away from TV for long: He returned a few months later, in January 1976, in the TV movie “The Macahans,” which led to the 1978-79 ABC series “How the West Was Won.”

Arness took on a contemporary role as a police officer in the series “McClain’s Law,” which aired on NBC from 1981-82.

Despite his desire for privacy, a rocky domestic life landed him in the news more than once.

Arness met future wife Virginia Chapman while both were studying at Southern California’s Pasadena Playhouse. They wed in 1948 and had two children, Jenny and Rolf. Chapman’s son from her first marriage, Craig, was adopted by Arness.

The marriage foundered and in 1963 Arness sought a divorce and custody of the three children, which he was granted. He tried to guard them from the spotlight.

“The kids don’t really have any part of my television life,” he once remarked. “Fortunately, there aren’t many times when show business intrudes on our family existence.”

The emotionally troubled Virginia Arness attempted suicide twice, in 1959 and in 1960. In 1975, Jenny Arness died of an apparently deliberate drug overdose. Two years later, an overdose that police deemed accidental killed her mother.

Arness married Janet Surtees in 1978. Besides his wife, Arness is survived by two sons and six grandchildren. A private memorial service will be held.

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AP Television Writer David Bauder and Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle in New York contributed to this story.