Iconic Gunsmoke Star James Arness Dies at 88
For his role as lawman Matt Dillon on the long-running western drama. Arness earned three Primetime Emmy nominations.
James Arness, an actor best known for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running television western series Gunsmoke, died June 3, 2011, at his home in the Brentwood section of Loa Angeles. He was 88.
According to news reports, Arness died of natural causes.
Gunsmoke, an iconic television franchise, was the country's longest-running prime-time live action drama with 635 episodes. It aired from 1955 to 1975.
Arness earned three Primetime Emmy nominations for his work on the show.
A towering figure who stood six feet seven inches tall, Arness starred in numerous other westerns, including the late-’70s miniseries How the West Was Won. He also starred as the title detective in the series McClain's Law.
He was born James Aurness on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three years later his brother Peter — who later achieved acting fame under the stage name Peter Graves — was born.
In 1943, as a freshman at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Arness was drafted into the U.S.Army and assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. He participated in the landing at Anzio, Italy, in 1944. Because of his height, he was chosen to be the first off his landing craft to test the depth of the water.
Later, while walking point on a night patrol through a vineyard, Arness walked into a German machine-gun nest and rounds severely splintered the bones in his lower right leg. The wound resulted in his leg being shortened by about 5/8 of an inch, and he thereafter wore a lift in his shoe.
After undergoing months of rehabilitation in a U.S. hospital, Arness was honorably discharged from the Army in January 1945 with a $56-a-month disability pension.
He enrolled in a radio announcing school in Minneapolis and soon found work as a disc jockey at a local station.
Less than a year later joined a friend on a trip to Los Angeles, where he decided to stay to pursue an acting career.
Under the GI Bill, he studied at the Bliss-Hayden Theater in Beverly Hills, which led to representation by his first agent.
An introduction to powerful producer Dore Schary led to Arness' feature film debut as one of Loretta Young's three Scandinavian brothers in the 1947 release The Farmer's Daughter. Roles in other films, including Battleground, and Wagon Master, followed.
For Gunsmoke, CBS had reportedly wanted John Wayne for the role of Dillon. Wayne declined, but recommended his friend Arness.
After the show's 1975 cancellation, Arness made several Gunsmoke movies for television.
He is survived by his second wife, two sons and six grandchildren.
His brother, former Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves, died March 14, 2010.
On August 16, 2002, James Arness had the distinction of being interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television.
During the two-and-a-half-hour interview, conducted in Los Angeles by Henry Colman, Arness began by speaking about his early years and experiences, which included serving in the army during World War II
He then recalled his start in local radio in Minneapolis. He noted his break into acting in movies and listed several in which he appeared. He also described his experiences in early television, including anthology series that were done “live.”
Later, Arness spoke in great detail about the role for which he is most known, that of Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. He talked about his initial reluctance to take the part — until convinced by John Wayne, for whom he was under contract. He described Gunsmoke's characters and their relationships with each other, and discussed working with the behind-the-scenes talent, including key producers and directors.
He also talked about later television roles, including his appearance as a regular on the late 1970s western series How the West Was Won.
The entire interview is available online here.