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James Arness

James King Arness is an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years.  Arness has the distinction of having played the role of 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 reaches cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won.  His younger brother was actor Peter Graves.

Early life

Arness is born James Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis.  His parents are Rolf Cirkler Aurness (July 22, 1894 – July 1982), a businessman, and Ruth (née Duesler) Aurness (dies September 1986), a journalist.  His father's ancestry is Norwegian, his mother's German. 

The family name has been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father Peter Aursnes emigrates from Norway in 1887, he changes it to Aurness.   Arness and his family are Methodists. Arness' younger brother is actor Peter Graves (1926–2010).  Peter uses the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.

Arness attends John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School and West High School in Minneapolis.  During this time, Arness works as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the James J. Hill's Burlington freight-yards in Minneapolis, and logging in Pierce, Idaho. Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes", he graduates from high school in June 1942. He then enlistes in the United States Army to serve in World War II.

Military service in World War II

Arness wants to be a naval fighter pilot, but he feels his poor eyesight will bar him.  His height of 6 feet 7 inches ends his hopes, since 6 feet 2 inches is the limit for aviators.  Instead, he is called for the Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943.  Arness serves as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and is severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy.

According to James Arness – An Autobiography, he lands on Anzio Beachhead on January 22, 1944 as a rifleman with 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division.  Due to his height, he is 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 is honorably discharged.  His wounds continue to bother him, and in later years Arness suffers from acute leg pain, which sometimes hurt when mounting a horse.  His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the 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.

Acting career

After his discharge, James Arness enters Beloit College in Wisconsin.  He begins his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945.

Arness first comes to Hollywood by hitchhiking and soon begins acting and appearing in films.  He begins with RKO, which immediately changes his name from "Aurness".  His film debut is as Loretta Young's (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in The Farmer's Daughter (1947).

Though identified with westerns, Arness also appears in two science fiction films, The Thing from Another World (in which he portrays the title character) and Them!.  He is a close friend of John Wayne and co-stars with him in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase.

An urban legend has it that John Wayne is offered the leading role of Matt Dillon in the longtime favorite television show Gunsmoke, but he turns it down, recommending instead James Arness for the role.  The only part of this story that is true is that Wayne did indeed recommend Arness for the part.  Wayne introduced Arness in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke, in 1955.

The Norwegian-German Arness has to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.  Gunsmoke makes Arness world-famous and will run for two decades, becoming the longest running drama series in U.S. television history by the end of its run in 1975.  The series' season record is tied only in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order.  Unlike the latter show, Gunsmoke features its lead character in each of its twenty seasons; Gunsmoke also airs 179 more episodes, and is in the top 10 in the ratings for eleven more seasons, for a total of thirteen, including four consecutive seasons at number one.

After Gunsmoke ends, Arness performes 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, where it became even more popular than in the United States, as the series has been re-broadcast many times across Europe.

James Arness: An Autobiography is released in September 2001, with a foreword by Burt Reynolds. Arness notes that he realizes, "[I]f I was going to write a book about my life, I better do it now ... 'cause I'm not getting any younger."

Personal life

Arness was marries twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960.  She dies in 1976.  Arness is married to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death.  He has two sons, Rolf (born February 18, 1952) and Craig (died December 14, 2004).  His daughter Jenny Lee Aurness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975) dies of suicide.

Rolf Aurness becomes World Surfing Champion in 1970.  Craig Aurness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also is a photographer for National Geographic.

Despite his stoic character, according to Ben Bates, his Gunsmoke stunt double, Arness laughs "from his toes to the top of his head".  Shooting on the Gunsmoke set is suspended because Arness gets a case of the uncontrollable giggles.  James Arness disdains publicity and bans reporters from the Gunsmoke set. He is said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoys poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing.  TV Guide dubs him "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City".  Buck Taylor (Newly on Gunsmoke) thinks so highly of Arness that he names his second son, Matthew, after Arness' character.

Arness dies of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011. He is interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Plot: Great Mausoleum, Jasmine Terrace, Sanctuary of Abiding Hope, Crypt 16174 in Glendale, California.


For his contributions to the television industry, Arness has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street. In 1981, he is inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Arness is inducted into the Santa Clarita Walk of Western Stars in 2006, and gives a related TV interview.

On the 50th anniversary of television in 1989 in the United States, People magazine chose the top 25 television stars of all time. Arness is number 6.

In 1996 TV Guide ranks him number 20 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.

Arness is 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

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