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James Arness





James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon


It was with much sadness that I learned veteran TV and film actor James Arness had recently passed away.  When one thinks of TV westerns the first show that comes to mind is the long running CBS series “Gunsmoke.”   First aired in 1955 it starred a relatively newcomer to the small screen, a towering 6’7 actor named James Arness.  Twenty years later Miss Kitty’s saloon would close its doors as “Gunsmoke” would go into the record books as one of the longest running Primetime TV series.  James Arness would go on to star in 5 made for TV movies about Matt Dillon thus solidifying that Arness and Matt Dillon would go down in history as America’s quintessential western law man.

Jim started his climb to Dodge City as James Aurness in Minneapolis on May 26th 1923.  His father, Rolf Cirkler Aurness, was a businessman and the son of a Norwegian immigrant; his mother Ruth Aurness was a Journalist.

Peter Graves


He was the oldest of two sons; his younger brother, Peter Graves (1927-2010), holds an equally high place in TV history portraying the Stoic Jim Phelps in another CBS hit series Mission: Impossible.

Both grew up in the greater Minneapolis area and attended local schools.  When World War II broke out Arness tried to do his duty by enlisting in the Air Force.  He was immediately turned down; his 6’7 frame was far too big to fit in the cockpit of any of the aircraft.  So off he went to join the Army.

James Arness

Wikipedia writes, “According to James Arness – An Autobiography, he landed on the Anzio Beachead on January 22, 1944 as a rifleman with 2nd ,Platoon E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Due to his height, he was the first ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist.

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 acute leg pain, which sometimes hurt when mounting a horse. His 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 Cross Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.”

"The Thing" and "Them"

After the war Jim came home and got a job as a radio personality at a local Minneapolis radio station.  Two years later he was hitching his way to Hollywood and the rest is history.  A list of his films and TV appearances can be found at  Two of my favorite James Arness movies are both Science Fiction thrillers from the 50′s.  The first is a Howard Hawks production; “The Thing from Another World” starring Kenneth Toby and James Arness as “The Thing”.  The other is “Them”, with James Arness and James Whitmore co starring with some rather large ants.

As many of you know CBS wanted John Wayne to play Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” but Wayne wanted to stay on the big screen and turned them down.  He did however recommend his friend, Jim Arness.  Wayne opened the first episode, September 10th, 1955, like this…..

Original Cast of Gunsmoke

“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. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here, all kinds, and some of them have been Westerns. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight: a Western—a new TV show called Gunsmoke. No, I’m not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it’s the best thing of its kind that’s come along, and I hope you’ll agree with me; it’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about the show Gunsmoke, 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. So you might as well get used to him, like you’ve had to get used to me! And now I’m proud to present my friend Jim Arness in Gunsmoke.

Brandon Tartikoff, the late NBC Entertainment president, described in his autobiography, “The Last Great Ride”’ how he first cast James Arness for the lead role in the short lived NBC series “McClain’s Law.”  How he waited anxiously outside the Arness home for Jim to answer the door.

“I began praying that someone who still very much resembled Marshal Matt Dillon would be inside. Suddenly the door flew open and I saw most–but not all–of a massive body that was obviously over six and a half feet tall. Whose body it was, I couldn’t tell for certain, because the head was someplace up above the doorframe.
For a long time nothing happened. Then Arness craned his neck and stuck his famous and (thank goodness) well-preserved face through the doorway.
“Well, sonny,” he growled, “how do I look?”

James Arness passed away on June 3rd, 2011 at his home in Brentwood California of apparent heart failure; he was 88.  He is survived by his wife Janet, son Rolf Aurness, stepson Jim Surtees; six grandchildren, and a great grandchild.

From an episode of “Gunsmoke”.

Matt Dillon: I was wonderin’ if you were going to come to say goodbye.
Kitty Russell: I was wonderin’ too. It isn’t easy.
Matt Dillon: No, Kitty, it isn’t.
Kitty Russell: Matt, I-I don’t you want to think… Well, it isn’t that it’s…
Matt Dillon: Kitty, we’ve never needed explanations, have we?
Kitty Russell: No. Goodbye, Matt
Matt Dillon: Goodbye, Kitty 




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