James Arness

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James Arness
James King Aurness

(1923-05-26)May 26, 1923
DiedJune 3, 2011(2011-06-03) (aged 88)
Burial placeForest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery
Alma materBeloit College
Years active1947–1994
Height6 ft 7 in (2.01 m)
How the West Was Won
Virginia Chapman
(m. 1948; div. 1960)

Janet Surtees
(m. 1978)
RelativesPeter Graves (brother)
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1943–1945[2]
RankUS Army WWII CPL.svg Corporal
Unit7th Infantry Regiment DUI.png 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment
3rd Infantry Division SSI (1918-2015).svg 3rd Infantry Division
Battles/warsWorld War II

James Arness (born James King Aurness, May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011) was an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon for 20 years in the CBS television series Gunsmoke. 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. He was the older brother of actor Peter Graves.

Early life[edit]

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

Although Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, he was concerned his poor eyesight would bar him. However, it was his 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) frame that ended his chances because the limit for aviators was set at 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m). He was drafted into the US Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943.[5] As a rifleman, he landed on Anzio Beachhead on January 22, 1944, with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Arness - due to his height - was the first man to be ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist.[5] Arness was severely wounded in his right leg during the Battle of Anzio.[7][8]

Arness was sent to the U.S. Army 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa, to be treated for his wounds. After undergoing several surgeries, he was honorably discharged on January 29, 1945. However, his wounds continued to bother him throughout the rest of his life; in later years he had to cope with chronic leg pain that often became acute, such as when he mounted horses during his performance on Gunsmoke.[1][8] His military decorations include the Bronze Star, 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.[1][9]

Acting career[edit]

As Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon in 1956

After his discharge from the service, Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his entertainment career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945.[10]

Arness came to Hollywood by hitchhiking[11] and soon began acting and appearing in films. He began with RKO, who 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. He also starred in a 1988 TV remake of Wayne's 1948 classic Red River

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, instead recommending 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.[12] The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.[13] Gunsmoke made Arness and his co-stars, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, 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 in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order and tied again in 2018 with season 20 of Law & Order: SVU. Unlike the latter show, Gunsmoke featured its lead character in each of its 20 seasons; Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes, and was in the top 10 in the ratings for 11 more seasons, for a total of 13, 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 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."[14]




  • America's Star - (1988) Documentary and recruiting film for the United States Marshals Service for which Arness was awarded the honorary title of US Marshal and presented with an official badge.[17]

Television credits[edit]

As Matt Dillon in 1969
  • The Lone Ranger - Deputy Bud Titus[18][19] (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[edit]

Arness with his son, Rolf, in 1959.

Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960.[20] He adopted her son Craig.[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 (1946 – December 14, 2004)[21] and one daughter, Jenny Lee Arness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975). Rolf Arness became World Surfing Champion in 1970.[20] Craig Arness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic.[22] Arness is survived by Rolf.[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 sometimes suspended because Arness got a case of the uncontrollable giggles.[23] 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."[24] Buck Taylor (Newly on Gunsmoke) thought so highly of Arness that he named his second son, Matthew, after Arness' character.[25]


Arness died of natural causes at age 88 at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.[26] He is interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park 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 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:[21]

  • 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 Telegraph obituary
  4. ^ "Ancestry of James Arness" Archived 2010-09-26 at the Wayback Machine. genealogy.com 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". Adherents.com. Retrieved 2011-06-03.
  7. ^ "James Arness". Nndb.com. Retrieved 2011-06-03.
  8. ^ a b Bergan, Ronald (2010). "James Arness obituary", The Guardian, US edition, June 6, 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2017.
  9. ^ "James Arness Medals," GunsmokeNet.com
  10. ^ "TV Guide, November 1961, page 8" Accessed March 1, 2012
  11. ^ "How did James Arness first come to Hollywood?" GunsmokeNet.com
  12. ^ "Gunsmoke". Snopes.com. August 6, 2007. Retrieved June 4, 2011.
  13. ^ "James Arness is a blonde!" GunsmokeNet.com
  14. ^ "James Arness wrote his autobiography in 2001," GunsmokeNet.com
  15. ^ "The Alamo Thirteen Days to Glory-Overview" New York Times, Accessed 17 March 2010
  16. ^ "James Arness-Filmography" Fandango.com Accessed 17 March 2010
  17. ^ "Appreciation of Honorary U.S. Marshal James Arness". usmarshals.gov. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  18. ^ "Lone Ranger Fan Club" lonerangerfan.com Accessed 17 March 2010
  19. ^ "Gunsmoke was not James Arness' first television western," GunsmokeNet.com
  20. ^ a b Kampion, Drew (December 2000) "Rolf Arness Biography". Surf Line, Accessed March 15, 2010
  21. ^ a b "TV Guide-James Arness:Biography" TV Guide Accessed 17 March 2010
  22. ^ Walker, David (December 16, 2004) "In Memoriam: Craig Arness, 58". Photo District News, Accessed July 9, 2010.
  23. ^ "In Gunsmoke, we never see Matt have a good belly laugh," GunsmokeNet.com
  24. ^ "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City," GunsmokeNet.com
  25. ^ "Buck Taylor's son Matthew" GunsmokeNet.com
  26. ^ Robert D. McFadden (June 3, 2011). "James Arness, Marshal on 'Gunsmoke,' Dies at 88". The New York Times.
  27. ^ People Magazine, 1989.
  28. ^ TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596. ISBN 0-7607-5634-1.

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