Memories is part of The Thursday File -- Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
Subscribe Now
Memories > 2011 > James Arness, 88
Follow us on:
A digest for the enjoyment
and passion of words,
thoughts, and disiplines.
James Arness  / 1923 - 2011
Gunsmoke actor James Arness dies

James Arness, the actor who played Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon for two decades on Gunsmoke, died Friday. He was 88.

Arness died in his sleep at his home in Brentwood, Calif., according to his business manager, Ginny Fazer.

Arness, a 6-foot-6 Minnesotan, had one of the longest roles in television history as the quietly heroic U.S. Marshal, keeping the peace in one of the West's most violent towns.

He also was a legend in Hollywood for his portrayal of Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won.

Posthumous message
On Friday, his official website carried a letter he had left to be posted after his death.

"I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends," he wrote.

"I wanted to take this time to thank all of you for the many years of being a fan of Gunsmoke, The Thing, How the West Was Won and all the other fun projects I was lucky enough to have been allowed to be a part of. I had the privilege of working with so many great actors over the years."

Arness had roles alongside Rock Hudson in Iron Man, John Wayne in Hondo and Big Jim McLain and Sterling Hayden in Hellgate before he landed Gunsmoke. He also appeared in 1951's The Thing From Another World as the alien Thing.

Hesitated over Gunsmoke role
Wayne actually turned down the role of Matt Dillon and recommended Arness for the role. Arness was reluctant to take it because he thought his film career might go further.

"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."

Gunsmoke was initially a radio series (1952 to 1961), with Matt Dillon played by William Conrad. Arness developed the character of Dillon throughout its two decades, creating a man who brooded less over the violence of human nature but who also was less likely to punch his way out of trouble. He remained the fastest man in Dodge with a firearm and absolutely incorruptible.

"The camera really loved his face, and with good reason," novelist Wallace Markfield wrote in a 1975 Gunsmoke appreciation in the New York Times. "It was a face that would age well and that, while aging, would carry intimations of waste, loss and futility."

Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis on May 26, 1923 — he dropped the "u" from his name at the urging of a theatre coach. His brother, who changed his name entirely, was Peter Graves, who starred in Mission Impossible.

Arness left home at age 18, hopping freight trains and Caribbean-bound freighters. He was drafted into the army in 1942 and was wounded in the leg during the 1944 invasion of Italy. Arness was hospitalized for a year and left the service with a slight limp.

He returned to Minneapolis to work as a radio announcer and had small theatre roles before heading to Hollywood in 1946.

Age of the western
The television version of Gunsmoke ran for 20 seasons — from 1955 to 1975 — and was the longest-running prime time, live-action drama in the U.S. until 2010, when Law and Order matched that record.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Arness starred in five TV movies based on the series.

Arness performed in western-themed television series The Macahans and How the West was Won and played detective Jim McClain in McClain's Law.

His marriage to Virginia Chapman ended in divorce in 1960. They had three children together, one of whom, Jenny Lee, committed suicide in 1975.

Arness is survived by his second wife, Janet Surtrees, who he married in 1978 and his son Rolf. Another son, Craig, died in 2004.

James Arness
James Arness, who died on June 3 aged 88, played Matt Dillon, the square-jawed, heroic marshal of Dodge City in Gunsmoke, one of America’s longest-running television series.

Arness is said to have owed his role in the programme to John Wayne, with whom he struck up what would become a lifelong friendship when they both starred in the film Big Jim McLain (1952), about two investigators trying to track down communist agitators in post-war Hawaii.

Wayne encouraged Arness to take the role of Matt Dillon, and when the first episode of Gunsmoke was broadcast in 1955 “the Duke” introduced it with the words: “Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time ... [Gunsmoke is] honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about the show, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star.”

The programme was an immediate success, despite the observation by Amanda Blake (the saloon keeper Miss Kitty) that: “This is the only show where the characters can sit around in a bar room and say 'hello’ for half an hour.” A youthful Burt Reynolds was recruited to play the lusty, honest Dodge City blacksmith.

Critics hailed the show as “the grimy, gritty version of the reality of frontier life” and as “television’s first adult Western”.

In 1966-67, however, the ratings plummeted, and it looked as though the series had run its course; but when it was axed, such were the howls of protest from viewers that the chairman of CBS, William Paley, ordered it to be reinstated. The show (which had originally begun on radio in 1952) ran on television until 1975, notching up 635 episodes and making Arness a household name.

Until he made Gunsmoke, Arness had probably been best known for his role in the science fiction film The Thing from Another World (1951), in which a scientist at a research station in the Arctic discovers a flying saucer buried in the ice. The frozen pilot is accidentally thawed out by an electric blanket, and comes back to life as The Thing (Arness) — a vampiric form of plant life.

This was the sort of part that was ideal for Arness’s towering frame: at 6ft 7in tall he had found it difficult to get mainstream parts because he dwarfed the other players, and he once declared: “When you’re that tall, you live on a lonely summit.” His height was, however, considered an advantage as the guardian of law and order in Dodge City, Kansas, on the western frontier in the 1870s.

Born James Aurness (he later dropped the “u”) in Minneapolis on May 26 1923, he was the son of a retired medical supplies salesman of Norwegian descent. As a boy James relished the outdoor life, hunting, fishing and sailing. The family was musical, and he joined a local church choir. During his first year at Beloit College in Wisconsin (1942-43) he was drafted, and when his unit went ashore in the Anzio landings, the commander of his assault craft sent him out first, since Arness’s height would reveal the depth of the water. This earned Arness a leg wound, a journey home and an honourable discharge.

He then worked as a radio announcer for WLOL in Minneapolis before moving to California, where he joined a theatre group in Beverly Hills. He was spotted by a talent scout, and introduced to the film producer and director Dore Schary.

Arness made his big screen debut in 1947, as one of Loretta Young’s brothers in The Farmer’s Daughter, then had a part in The People Against O’Hara alongside Spencer Tracy. After his role as The Thing, Arness appeared in The First Travelling Saleslady (1956), with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing, before embarking on four films with John Wayne: Big Jim McLain; Island in the Sky and Hondo (both 1953); and The Sea Chase (1955).

After the demise of Gunsmoke, Arness appeared in the 1976 television film The Macahans and the ABC series How the West Was Won (1978-79). He was by now a rich man — so rich that he was able to give his ranch in the California hills to a Jewish seminary, the Brandels Institute. At one stage he owned four houses, including one in Hawaii.

His life was not blessed, however: both his daughter, Jenny, and his first wife, Virginia, whom he had married in 1948, died of drug overdoses in the 1970s.

In 1981 Arness attempted a comeback with a cops and robbers television series, McLain’s Law, but the show was axed after a single season.

Arness’s brother Peter, who changed his last name to Graves, starred in the television series Mission Impossible.

James Arness is survived by his second wife, Janet Surtees, whom he married in 1978, and by a son and a stepson (whom he adopted) from his first marriage.

James King Aurness
Born May 26, 1923
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Died June 3, 2011
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart failure
Occupation Actor
Years active 1947–1994
Spouse Virginia Chapman (1948–1960)
Janet Surtees (1978–2011)
Children 2 sons (1 deceased)
Daughter (deceased)
Relatives Peter Graves (brother, deceased)

Memories Index
> James Arness
Thursday File
       > home page