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.
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 (19262010). 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.
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.
After his discharge, James Arness enters Beloit College in Wisconsin. He begins his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in
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
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
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."
Arness was marries twice, first to Virginia Chapman
from 1948 until their divorce in 1960. She dies in 1976. Arness
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
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