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James Arness

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James Arness
Arness in 1970
James King Aurness

(1923-05-26)May 26, 1923
DiedJune 3, 2011(2011-06-03) (aged 88)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
Alma materBeloit College
Years active1947–1994
Height6 ft 7 in (2.01 m)
Virginia Chapman
(m. 1948; div. 1960)
Janet Surtees
(m. 1978)
PartnerThordis Brandt (1965–1972)
RelativesPeter Graves (brother)
Military career
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1943–1945
Further information
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 series Gunsmoke. He has the distinction of having played the role of Dillon in five 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


James Arness was born in Minneapolis.[1] His parents were businessman Rolf Cirkler Aurness and journalist Ruth Duesler. His father's ancestry was Norwegian; his mother's was German.[2] The family name had been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father, Peter Aursnes, emigrated from Norway in 1887, he changed it to Aurness.[3] James Arness and his family were Methodists.[4] Arness' younger brother was actor Peter Graves. Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.[3]

Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School, and West High School in Minneapolis. During that time, Arness worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad freight yards in Minneapolis and logging in Pierce, Idaho.[3] Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes," he graduated from high school in June 1942.[3]

Arness entered Beloit College that fall, where he joined the campus choir and became a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity.[5]

Military service in World War II


Although Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, he was concerned his poor eyesight would bar him. However, it was his 6-ft, 7-in (2.01 m) frame that ended his chances because the height limit for aviators was set at 6 ft, 2 in (1.88 m). He was drafted into the US Army and reported to Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota in March 1943.[3] 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 the landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist.[3]

He was severely wounded in his right leg during the Battle of Anzio,[6] and medically evacuated from Italy to the US, where he was sent to the 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. His brother Peter (later known as actor Peter Graves) came to see him when he was beginning his long recuperation, assuring him to not worry about his injuries, that likely he could find work in the field of radio. After undergoing several surgeries, he was honorably discharged from the Army on January 29, 1945.[7] His wounds continued to trouble him, though, throughout the remainder of his life. In his later years, he suffered from chronic leg pain that often became acute, and was sometimes initiated when he was mounted on horses during his performances on Gunsmoke.[8][6]

His military decorations included the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the American Campaign Medal, the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars and arrowhead device, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.[8][9]

Acting career

As Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon in 1956

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

Determined to find work in films, Arness hitchhiked to Hollywood,[11] where he made the rounds to agencies and casting calls and soon began acting and appearing in films. He made his movie debut at 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 Aurness.[8]

Though identified as appearing in Westerns, Arness also acted in two science-fiction films, The Thing from Another World (in which he portrayed the titular character) and Them!. He became a close friend of John Wayne and appeared in supporting roles in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky and The Sea Chase, all starring Wayne. Arness starred in Gun the Man Down, a fast-paced Western, for Wayne's production company. He also starred in a 1988 TV remake of Wayne's 1948 classic Red River, appearing in Wayne's role as Tom Dunson.

An urban legend has it that John Wayne turned down the starring role of Matt Dillon in the classic television Western Gunsmoke, instead recommending James Arness for the part. The only true part of this story is that Wayne did indeed recommend Arness for the role; Wayne was never offered the part. Wayne appeared in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke in 1955, in which he introduced Arness as Matt Dillon.[12] The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.[13] Arvo Ojala, who taught Arness to shoot, was the first of several actors in the show's opening where Marshal Dillon has a shootout with what is described as "a generic bad guy" representing all those which Dillon must deal with.[14] Gunsmoke made Arness and his co-stars, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, and Buck Taylor world-famous, and ran for two decades, becoming the longest-running primetime 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: Special Victims Unit. 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, 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 Reynolds (who had been a cast member of Gunsmoke for several years in the 1960s). Arness 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."[15]

Personal life

Arness with his son, Rolf, in 1959

Arness married Virginia Chapman in 1948, and adopted her son Craig (1946 – December 14, 2004).[1] Arness and Chapman also had a son, Rolf (born February 18, 1952),[16] and a daughter, Jenny Lee Arness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975). Rolf Aurness became World Surfing Champion in 1970.[17] Craig Arness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic.[18] When they divorced in 1963, Arness was granted legal custody of the children. Daughter Jenny died of an apparently deliberate drug overdose in 1975.[19] His former wife Virginia died of an accidental drug overdose in 1977.[20]

Four years after his divorce from Virginia Chapman, James Arness met Thordis Brandt,[21][22] who was his girlfriend for six years before they ended their relationship.[23] In 1978, Arness married Janet Surtees. She and his sons survived him.[8]

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.[24] James Arness disdained publicity and banned reporters from the Gunsmoke set. He was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, yacht racing, and surfing. TV Guide dubbed him "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City".[25] Buck Taylor (Newly on Gunsmoke) thought so highly of Arness that he named his second son, Matthew, after Arness' character.[26]



Arness died from natural causes at the age of 88 years at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.[27]


1963 Gunsmoke cast: Amanda Blake (Kitty), Arness (Matt Dillon), Milburn Stone (Doc Adams), and Burt Reynolds (Quint Asper)

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.[8]

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 six.[28] In 1996, TV Guide ranked him number 20 on its "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time" list.[29]

Arness was nominated for these Emmy Awards:[16]

  • 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






  • 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[30]


As Matt Dillon in 1969
  • The Lone Ranger – Deputy Bud Titus[31][32] (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)
  • The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory (1987, TV movie) – Jim Bowie[33]
  • Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon
  • Red River (1988, TV Movie) – Thomas Dunson[34]
  • John Wayne Standing Tall – TV Movie – Himself /Host (1989)
  • Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon
  • Gunsmoke II: The Last Apache (1990, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon
  • Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon
  • Gunsmoke IV: The Long Ride (1993, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon
  • Gunsmoke V: One Man's Justice (1993, TV movie) – Marshal Matt Dillon (final film role)
  • Pioneers of Television – episode – Westerns – Himself / Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke (2011)


  1. ^ a b "James Arness". www.telegraph.co.uk. June 3, 2011. Archived from the original on January 12, 2022.
  2. ^ "Ancestry of James Arness" Archived September 26, 2010, at the Wayback Machine genealogy.com Accessed March 17, 2010
  3. ^ 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., p. 5. Accessed May 26, 2021.
  4. ^ "Famous Methodists". Adherents.com. Archived from the original on March 4, 2001. Retrieved June 3, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ "Friday's with Fred: Bright Lights and 'Beloit's Paul Bunyan'". 2013.
  6. ^ a b Bergan, Ronald (2010). "James Arness obituary", The Guardian, US edition, June 6, 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2017.
  7. ^ "Cpl James Arness". TogetherWeServed. 2015. Retrieved May 23, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d e Leon Worden "Newsmaker of the Week: TV Interview Transcript" April 21, 2006, Santa Clara Valley TV Accessed March 15, 2010
  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. ^ Mikkelson, David (August 6, 2007). "Gunsmoke". Snopes.com. Retrieved June 4, 2011.
  13. ^ "James Arness is a blonde!" GunsmokeNet.com
  14. ^ Thomlison, Adam. "Q: In the opening credits of 'Gunsmoke,' Matt faces a guy in a gunfight. Who's the guy and what's his background?". TV Media. Retrieved January 5, 2023.
  15. ^ "James Arness wrote his autobiography in 2001," GunsmokeNet.com
  16. ^ a b "TV Guide-James Arness:Biography" TV Guide Accessed March 17, 2010
  17. ^ Kampion, Drew (December 2000) "Rolf Aurness Biography". Surf Line, Accessed March 15, 2010
  18. ^ Walker, David (December 16, 2004) "In Memoriam: Craig Arness, 58". Photo District News, Accessed July 9, 2010.
  19. ^ "Remembering James Arness, 1923–2011". Orange County Register. June 3, 2011. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  20. ^ "Actor's ex-wife overdoses". The Pocono Record. August 1, 1977. p. 2.
  21. ^ Scott, Walter (October 3, 1971). "Personality Parade". Parade: the Sunday News Magazine. Parade Publications, Inc. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  22. ^ Lisanti, Tom (2008). Glamour Girls of Sixties Hollywood. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-0-7864-3172-4. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  23. ^ "Whatever Happened to The Cast of Gunsmoke? (Jerry Skinner Documentary)". Archived from the original on November 17, 2021 – via www.youtube.com.
  24. ^ "In Gunsmoke, we never see Matt have a good belly laugh," GunsmokeNet.com
  25. ^ "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City," GunsmokeNet.com
  26. ^ "Buck Taylor's son Matthew" GunsmokeNet.com. Accessed June 16, 2023.
  27. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (June 3, 2011). "James Arness, Marshal on 'Gunsmoke,' Dies at 88". The New York Times.
  28. ^ "GunsmokeNet.com". www.gunsmokenet.com.
  29. ^ TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596. ISBN 0-7607-5634-1.
  30. ^ "Appreciation of Honorary U.S. Marshal James Arness". usmarshals.gov. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  31. ^ "Lone Ranger Fan Club" Archived February 17, 2016, at the Wayback Machine lonerangerfan.com Accessed March 17, 2010
  32. ^ "Gunsmoke was not James Arness' first television western," GunsmokeNet.com
  33. ^ "The Alamo Thirteen Days to Glory-Overview" New York Times, Accessed March 17, 2010
  34. ^ "James Arness-Filmography" Archived July 3, 2013, at the Wayback Machine Fandango.com Accessed March 17, 2010