James King Arness (May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011) was an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke for 20 years. His younger brother was actor Peter Graves. Arness has the distinction of having played the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in five separate decades: 1955 to 1975 in the weekly series, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s. In Europe Arness reached cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won.
Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents were Rolf Cirkler Aurness (July 22, 1894 – July 1982), a businessman, and Ruth (née Duesler) Aurness (died September 1986), a journalist. His father's ancestry was Norwegian, his mother's German. The family name had been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father Peter Aursnes emigrated from Norway in 1887, he changed it to Aurness. Arness and his family were Methodists.
Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School and West High School in Minneapolis. Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes", he graduated from high school in June 1942. He then enlisted in the United States Army to serve in World War II. Arness' younger brother was actor Peter Graves (1926–2010). Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.
In his prewar years, Arness worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the Minneapolis freight-yards, and logging in Pierce, Idaho. Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, but he felt his poor eyesight would bar him. His height of 6 feet 7 inches ended his hopes, since 6 feet 2 inches was the limit for aviators. Instead, he was called for the Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943. Arness served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy. According to James Arness – An Autobiography, he landed on Anzio Beachhead on January 21, 1944 as a rifleman with 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Due to his height, he was the first ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist. On January 29, 1945, having undergone surgery several times, Arness was honorably discharged. His wounds continued to bother him, and in later years Arness suffered from acute leg pain, which sometimes hurt when mounting a horse. His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart; the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
After his discharge, James Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945. Aurness soon began acting, and appeared in films. He began with RKO, which immediately changed his name to "Arness". His film debut was as Loretta Young's (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). Though identified with westerns, Arness also appeared in two science fiction films, The Thing from Another World (in which he portrayed the title character) and Them!. He was a close friend of John Wayne and co-starred with him in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky (check the video clip below from this film), and The Sea Chase. In 1956 he starred in the film Gun The Man Down for John Wayne's company, Batjac.
John Wayne was originally offered the starring role in an upcoming TV western drama titled Gunsmoke. Wayne turned down the offer, but strongly recommended Arness for the role. The actor was 32 when friend John Wayne recommended Arness instead. Afraid of being typecast, Arness initially rejected it.
"Go ahead and take it, Jim," Wayne urged him. "You're too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don't want a big lug like you towering over us. Make your mark in television." Then Wayne filmed an introduction for the first episode of "Gunsmoke" to give the largely unknown Arness the proper send-off. (A video clip of this introduction is below.)
"I predict he'll be a big star," Wayne told viewers. "So you might as well get used to him, like you've had to get used to me."
After Gunsmoke ended, Arness performed in western-themed movies and television series, including How the West Was Won, and in five made-for-television Gunsmoke movies between 1987 and 1994. An exception was as a big city police officer in a short-lived 1981 series, McClain's Law. His role as Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won made him into a cult figure in many European countries, as the series has been re-broadcast many times around Europe, where it became more popular than in the United States. Arness did the narration for Harry Carey, Jr.'s Comanche Stallion (directed by Clyde Lucas).
Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960. She died in 1976. Arness was married to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death. He had two sons, Rolf (born February 18, 1952) and Craig (died December 14, 2004). His daughter Jenny Lee Aurness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975) died of suicide. Rolf Aurness became World Surfing Champion in 1970. Craig Aurness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic.
Arness died of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles, California on June 3, 2011.
For his contributions to the television industry, Arness has 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, Oklahoma. Arness was inducted into the Santa Clarita Walk of Western Stars in 2006, and gave a related TV interview. On the 50th anniversary of television in 1989, People Magazine chose the top 25 television stars of all time. Arness was number 6.
Arness was nominated for the following Emmy awards:
1957: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Dramatic Series
1958: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic or Comedy Series
1959: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series
James Arness disdained publicity and banned reporters from the Gunsmoke set. He was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. TV Guide dubbed him "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City."
You can view the filmograpy of James Arness here courtesy of the Internet Movie Database.
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