James Arness:¬†May 26, 1923‚ÄďJune 3, 2011¬†


✪ James Arness (born James King Aurness) was an American actor, best known for his television role portraying Marshal Matt Dillon for 20 years in the series Gunsmoke. He has the distinction of having played the role of Dillon in the weekly series for five decades: from 1955 to 1975, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-television Gunsmoke films during the 1990s. In Europe, Arness reached somewhat of a cult star status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the Western series How the West Was Won. He was the older brother of actor Peter Graves (Mission Impossible).

James Arness was born in¬†Minneapolis on May 26th, 1923. His parents were businessman Rolf Cirkler Aurness and journalist Ruth Duesler. His father’s ethnic ancestry was¬†Norwegian and his mother’s was German.¬†The family name was originally Aursnes, but when Rolf’s father, Peter Aursnes, emigrated from¬†Norway¬†in 1887, he changed it to Aurness.¬†James Arness and his family were¬†Methodists. Arness’ younger brother was actor¬†Peter Graves. Peter took the stage name “Graves” from his mother’s side of the family.

Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School,¬†Washburn High School and¬†West High School¬†in Minneapolis. During that time, he worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the¬†Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad¬†freight yards in Minneapolis and logging in¬†Pierce, Idaho.¬†Despite “being a poor student and skipping many classes,” he graduated from high school in June 1942.

Arness entered Beloit College that fall, where he joined the campus choir and became a member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity.

Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot; however, he was concerned his poor eyesight would disqualify him. However, it was his 6-ft, 7-inch frame that ended his chances because the height limit for aviators was set at 6 ft, 2 in. Instead, he was drafted into the US Army and reported to Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota in March 1943. As a rifleman, he landed on Anzio Beachhead on January 22, 1944, with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Due to his height, Arness was the first man to be ordered off the landing craft to determine the depth of the water. It came up to his waist.

At Anzio, he was severely wounded in his right leg and medically evacuated from Italy to the US, where he was sent to the 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa to recover. His brother Peter came to see him when he was beginning his long recuperation, assuring him to not worry about his injuries, and suggested he could likely find work in the field of radio. After undergoing several surgeries, Arness was honorably discharged from the Army on January 29, 1945. His wounds would continued to trouble him throughout the remainder of his life. In his later years, he suffered from chronic leg pain that often became acute, and was sometimes activated when he was mounted on horses during his performances on Gunsmoke.

For his service in World War II, Arness was highly decorated; receiving military decorations including the¬†Bronze Star, ¬†Purple Heart, the¬†American Campaign Medal, the¬†European‚ÄďAfrican‚ÄďMiddle Eastern Campaign Medal¬†with three bronze¬†battle stars¬†and arrowhead device, the¬†World War II Victory Medal and the¬†Combat Infantryman Badge.

After his discharge from the service, Arness began his entertainment career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945.

Determined to eventually find work in films, Arness¬†hitchhiked¬†to¬†Hollywood,¬†where he made the rounds to agencies, screen tests and casting calls. He soon began to find acting work and appeared in films. He made his movie debut at¬†RKO, which immediately changed his name from “Aurness” to “Arness.” His film debut was as¬†Loretta Young’s (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in¬†The Farmer’s Daughter. He was credited in¬†The Farmer’s Daughter¬†as Aurness.

Though mostly identified as appearing in¬†Westerns, Arness also acted in two science-fiction films,¬†The Thing from Another World¬†(in which he portrayed the titular character) and¬†Them!. He became a close friend of¬†John Wayne¬†and appeared in supporting roles in¬†Big Jim McLain,¬†Hondo,¬†Island in the Sky¬†and¬†The Sea Chase, all starring Wayne. Arness also starred in¬†Gun the Man Down, a fast-paced Western, for Wayne’s production company. He also starred in a 1988 TV remake of Wayne’s 1948 classic¬†Red River, appearing in Wayne’s role as Tom Dunson.

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An urban legend has it that John Wayne first turned down the starring role of Matt Dillon in the classic television Western¬†Gunsmo; instead recommending Arness for the part. Wayne actually appeared in a prologue to the first episode of¬†Gunsmoke¬†in 1955, in which he introduced Arness as Matt Dillon.¬†The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.¬†Arvo Ojala, who taught Arness how to shoot, was the first of several actors in the show’s opening where Marshal Dillon has a shootout with what is described as “a generic bad guy” representing all those with which Dillon must deal.

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 Gunsmoke made Arness and his co-stars, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, and Buck Taylor world-famous, and ran for two decades, becoming the longest-running primetime drama series in US television history by the end of its run in 1975. 

After¬†Gunsmoke¬†ended, Arness performed in Western-themed movies and television series, including¬†How the West Was Won & in five made-for-television¬†Gunsmoke¬†movies between 1987 and 1994. An exception was his role as a big-city police officer in a short-lived 1981‚Äď1982 series,¬†McClain’s Law.

His role as mountain man Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won made him a celebrity cult figure in many European countries, where it became even more popular than in the United States. The series has since been rebroadcast many times across Europe.

Arness married Virginia Chapman in 1948, and adopted her son Craig.¬†Arness and Chapman also had a son of their own, Rolf¬†and a daughter, Jenny Lee Arness.¬†Rolf Aurness¬†became¬†World Surfing Champion¬†in 1970.¬†Craig Arness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for¬†National Geographic. When they divorced in 1963, Arness was granted legal custody of the children. Arness’s personal life was marked by loss when his daughter Jenny died of an apparently deliberate drug overdose in 1975.¬†His former wife Virginia later died of an accidental drug overdose in 1977.

In 1978, Arness married Janet Surtees. She and his sons survived him.

Despite his stoic character, according to Ben Bates, his¬†Gunsmoke¬†stunt double, Arness was known for his good nature and always laughed “from his toes to the top of his head.” Shooting on the¬†Gunsmoke¬†set was sometimes suspended because Arness would come down with a case of the uncontrollable giggles.¬†James Arness disdained publicity and banned reporters from the¬†Gunsmoke¬†set. He was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, yacht racing and surfing.¬†TV Guide¬†dubbed him “The Greta Garbo of Dodge City.”

For his contributions to the television industry, Arness was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street. In 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Arness died from natural causes at the age of 88 years at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011. His body is interred in the Sanctuary of Abiding Hope alcove in the Jasmine Terrace section of the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. ✪

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