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James Arness

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Title: James Arness  
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Subject: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, In the news/Candidates/June 2011, How the West Was Won (TV series), The People Against O'Hara, Hondo (film)
Collection: 1923 Births, 2011 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Male Actors, American Male Film Actors, American Male Television Actors, American Methodists, American Military Personnel of World War II, American People of German Descent, American People of Norwegian Descent, American Television Producers, Beloit College Alumni, Burials at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale), California Republicans, Male Actors from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Male Actors from Minnesota, Recipients of the Bronze Star Medal, Recipients of the Purple Heart Medal, United States Army Soldiers, Western (Genre) Television Actors
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James Arness

James Arness
Born James King Aurness
(1923-05-26)May 26, 1923
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Died June 3, 2011(2011-06-03) (aged 88)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Natural Causes
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery
Residence Brentwood, Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Education Minneapolis Washburn High School
Minneapolis West High School
Alma mater Beloit College
Occupation Actor
Years active 1947–94
Home town Minneapolis, Minnesota
Television Gunsmoke,
How the West Was Won
Spouse(s) Virginia Chapman (m.1948–1960, divorced)
Janet Surtees (m.1978–2011, his death)[1]
Children Rolf, Craig (deceased), Jim, Jenny Lee (deceased)
Relatives Peter Graves
(brother, deceased)
Military career
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1943-1945[2]
Rank Corporal

2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment

3rd Infantry Division

World War II


James Arness (May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011) was 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-television Gunsmoke films in the 1990s. In Europe Arness reached 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 1
  • Military service in World War II 2
  • Acting career 3
  • Filmography 4
    • Films 4.1
    • Television 4.2
  • Personal life 5
  • Death 6
  • Awards 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

James Arness was born James King Aurness in Minneapolis;[3] on May 26, 1923; he dropped the "u" when he started acting. His parents were Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a businessman, and his wife Ruth Duesler, a journalist. His father’s ancestry was Norwegian; his mother's was German.[4] The family name had been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father, Peter Aursnes, emigrated from Norway in 1887, he changed it to Aurness.[5] Arness and his family were Methodists.[6] Arness' younger brother was actor Peter Graves (1926–2010). Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.[5]

Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School and West High School in Minneapolis. During this time, Arness worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the Burlington freight yards in Minneapolis, and logging in Pierce, Idaho.[5] Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes", he graduated from high school in June 1942.[5]

Military service in World War II

Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, but he felt his poor eyesight would bar him. His height of 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) ended his hopes, since 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) was the limit for aviators. Instead, he was called for the Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943.[5] Arness served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy.[7]

According to James Arness – An Autobiography, he landed on Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Because of his height, he was the first ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist.[5]

Arness was sent to the U.S Army 91st General Hospital at Clinton Iowa to be treated.

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 chronic leg pain,[1] which sometimes hurt when mounting a horse. His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart,[1] the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.[8]

Acting career

As Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon in 1956
As Matt Dillon in 1969.

After his discharge, Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his performing career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945.[9]

Arness came to Hollywood by hitchhiking[10] and soon began acting and appearing in films. He began with RKO, which immediately changed his name from "Aurness". 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 ARNESS.[1]

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, and The Sea Chase, and starred in Gun the Man Down for Wayne's company.

An urban legend has it that John Wayne was offered the leading role of Matt Dillon in the longtime favorite television show Gunsmoke, but he turned 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.[11] The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.[12] Gunsmoke made Arness and his co-stars, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, and Buck Taylor, world-famous and would run for two decades, becoming the longest running prime time drama series in US television history by the end of its run in 1975. The series' season record was tied only in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order. Unlike the latter show, Gunsmoke featured its lead character in each of its twenty seasons; Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes, and was 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 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 1981-1982 series, McClain's Law, co-starring with Marshall Colt. His role as mountain man 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 rebroadcast many times across Europe.

James Arness: An Autobiography was released in September 2001, with a foreword by Burt Reynolds (who had been a cast member of Gunsmoke for several years in the 1960s). Arness noted that he realized, "[I]f I was going to write a book about my life, I better do it now ... 'cause I'm not getting any younger."[13]




  • The Lone Ranger - Deputy Bud Titus[16][17] (1950)
  • Lux Video Theatre, "The Chase" (1954)
  • Gunsmoke - 635 episodes - Marshal Matt Dillon (1955–1975)
  • Front Row Center (1956)
  • The Red Skelton Chevy Special (1959)
  • The Chevrolet Golden Anniversary Show (1961)
  • A Salute to Television's 25th Anniversary (1972)
  • The Macahans - Zeb Macahan (1976)
  • How The West Was Won - Zeb Macahan (1977-1979 TV series)
  • McClain's Law - Det. Jim McClain (1981-1982 TV series)
  • John Wayne Standing Tall - TV Movie - Himself /Host (1989)
  • Pioneers of Television - episode - Westerns - Himself / Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke (2011)

Personal life

Arness with his son, Rolf, in 1959.

Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960.[18] He adopted her son.[3] She died of a drug overdose[3] in 1976. Arness was married to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death.[1] He had two sons, Rolf (born February 18, 1952) and Craig (died December 14, 2004).[19] His daughter Jenny Lee Arness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975) committed suicide[20] by overdose.[3] Rolf Arness became World Surfing Champion in 1970.[18] Craig Arness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic.[21] Arness is survived by Rolf and by his adopted son.[3]

Despite his stoic character, according to Ben Bates, his Gunsmoke stunt double, Arness laughed "from his toes to the top of his head." Shooting on the Gunsmoke set was suspended because Arness got a case of the uncontrollable giggles.[22] 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."[23] Buck Taylor (Newly on Gunsmoke) thought so highly of Arness that he named his second son, Matthew, after Arness' character.[24]


Arness died of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.[25] He is interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.[26]


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. Arness was inducted into the Santa Clarita Walk of Western Stars in 2006, and gave a related TV interview.[1]

On the 50th anniversary of television in 1989 in the United States, People magazine chose the top 25 television stars of all time. Arness was number 6.[27]

In 1996 TV Guide ranked him number 20 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.[28]

Arness was nominated for the following Emmy Awards:[19]

  • 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


  1. ^ a b c d e f Leon Worden "Newsmaker of the Week: TV Interview Transcript" April 21, 2006, Santa Clara Valley TV Accessed March 15, 2010
  2. ^ "Cpl James Arness". TogetherWeServed. 2015. Retrieved 2015-05-23. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Telegraph obituary
  4. ^ "Ancestry of James Arness" Accessed 17 March 2010
  5. ^ a b c d e f James Arness, James E. Wise Jr. (2001) "James Arness: an Autobiography", ISBN 0-7864-1221-6, McFarland & Company Inc., Accessed March 15, 2010
  6. ^ "Famous Methodists". Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  7. ^ "James Arness". Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  8. ^ "James Arness Medals,"
  9. ^ "TV Guide, November 1961, page 8" Accessed March 1, 2012
  10. ^ "How did James Arness first come to Hollywood?"
  11. ^ "Gunsmoke".  
  12. ^ "James Arness is a blonde!"
  13. ^ "James Arness wrote his autobiography in 2001,"
  14. ^ "The Alamo Thirteen Days to Glory-Overview" New York Times, Accessed 17 March 2010
  15. ^ "James Arness-Filmography" Accessed 17 March 2010
  16. ^ "Lone Ranger Fan Club" Accessed 17 March 2010
  17. ^ "Gunsmoke was not James Arness' first television western,"
  18. ^ a b Kampion, Drew (December 2000) "Rolf Arness Biography". Surf Line, Accessed March 15, 2010
  19. ^ a b "TV Guide-James Arness:Biography" TV Guide Accessed 17 March 2010
  20. ^ "Jenny Lee Arness".  
  21. ^ Walker, David (December 16, 2004) "In Memoriam: Craig Arness, 58". Photo District News, Accessed July 9, 2010.
  22. ^ "In Gunsmoke, we never see Matt have a good belly laugh,"
  23. ^ "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City,"
  24. ^ "Buck Taylor's son Matthew"
  25. ^  
  26. ^ "James Arness".  
  27. ^ People Magazine, 1989.
  28. ^ TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596.  

External links

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