May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011
I think I have always considered Jim Arness as “The Man” in western television shows, because no other show ran for the amazing 20 years that Gunsmoke did. An entire generation grew from childhood to adulthood watching Matt Dillon taming Dodge City!
James King Arness was born May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis and is best known for his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke. James Arness played the role of Dillon in five separate decades from 1955 to 1975 and then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made for TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s.
Arness was of Norwegian and German decent, his last name was originally Aurness. Peter Aursnes, James’ grandfather emigrated from Norway in 1887 and changed his last name to Aurness. Peter Graves (1926-2010) was James’ younger brother and took on the last name of Graves which was a maternal family name.
He attended West High School in Minneapolis, during which time he worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loaded and unloaded railway box cars and logging in Pierce, Idaho. Although he was a rather poor student and skipped many classes, he graduated from high school in June, 1942.
James wanted to be a naval fighter pilot but feared his poor eyesight would prevent that from happening. His whopping height of 6’7″ dashed all hopes of being a fighter pilot as the height limit was 6’2″. He did join the Army and served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. He was severely wounded during Operation Shingle at Anzio, Italy.
On January 29, 1945, after undergoing several surgeries, he was honorably discharged. Years later his wounds continued to bother him, suffering from chronic leg pain often caused a great deal of hurt while mounting horses.
His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, European African Middle East Campaign Medal (with 3 bronze battle stars), the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
After leaving the service he attended Beloit College in Wisconsin and began his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945.
His film debut was in The Farmer’s Daughter with Loretta Young in 1947. 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.
It was rumored that John Wayne was offered the lead role as Matt Dillion in Gunsmoke and turned it down, but recommended Arness for the part. The only part that is true is that he did recommend Arness for the part. Ironically, both The Duke and Jim shared the same birthday, only Jim was born 16 year later!
Gunsmoke ran for two decades, making it the longest running drama series in U.S. television history. This record was tied in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order. Unlike Law & Order, Gunsmoke featured its lead in every one of it’s 20 seasons. Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes, and was in the top 10 in the ratings for eleven more seasons, for a total of thirteen, including four consecutive seasons at number one.
After Gunsmoke, he went on to perform in western movies and television series including How the West Was Won, and in five made-for-television Gunsmoke movies between 1987 and 1994. He also starred as a big city police officer in the short-lived 1981 series, McClain’s Law. His role as Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won turned him into a cult figure in many European countries.
John Wayne did introduce the opening of the first 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.”
— John Wayne – Gunsmoke TV episode one ”Matt Gets It.”
James Arness had a very long and extremely successful career and to this day, is one of the most recognized actors of his genre and time.
Stop by the James Arness Official Website for more great information: