James Arness

Dennis Weaver and James Arness

May 26 (1923) is the birthday of James Arness, the American actor forever linked to his playing Marshal Matt Dillon in the TV series “Gunsmoke”. The show was on TV for twenty years. 

He was born in Minneapolis as James Aurness of a Norwegian father and a German mother. He dropped the “u” in his name when he went into acting. 

He graduated from high school in Minneapolis in June 1942. WWII was raging. He wanted to be a naval aviator, but his height of 6’7” far exceeded the limit allowed. Instead he went into the army as a rifleman in March 1943. In January 1944 he was severely wounded in the leg in the landing at Anzio, Italy. He had several surgeries and was finally honorably discharged in January 1945. He was awarded the Purple Heart medal. The leg wound bothered him all his life. 

He entered Beloit College, but by January 1946 he had headed for California and Hollywood. He had his film debut in “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1947).   

Not well known is his role as the Thing in the 1951 classic sci-fi movie “The Thing from Another World”. It was impossible to identify him in the film, but take a look at the photo and you can see it’s really him. 

He was also in the 1954 sci-fi film “Them”, about giant ants taking over the sewers of Los Angeles. It was the first of many movies crediting nuclear explosions for all sorts of monster mutations. 

He was a close friend of John Wayne and had roles in John Wayne movies like “Hondo” (1953), “Island in the Sky” (1953), and “Sea Chase” (1955). And he was in other types of films, like “The People Against O’Hara” (1951), a courtroom drama, and “Her Twelve Men” (1954), a comedy drama.  

But Arness is known mostly for Westerns. “Hondo” was one. “Horizons West” (1952), “The Lone Hand” (1953), and “Gun the Man Down” (1956) were others.  

But he started the TV show “Gunsmoke” in 1955. John Wayne introduced the first episode on TV. Arness stayed with the show for the entire 20 years of its tenure. That is the longest running TV series except for “Law and Order”, which tied it in 2010. But “Gunsmoke” had had more episodes and Arness was always the lead character. 

In the photo you can see just how big Arness was. Dennis Weaver, who played Chester, is 6’2”. Burt Reynolds, who had a part in “Gunsmoke” for a while, said it was interesting to watch Arness and Weaver together. In the show Chester has a limp, and Dillon did not. But in real life Weaver was athletic and had no limp, and Arness did limp from that old leg wound. So when the cameras started rolling they would switch. 

In his career Arness was given three Emmy nominations and twice made an Honorary United States Marshal. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and received numerous Western Heritage Awards. He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.  

Arness was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. 

Arness’s younger brother Peter was also a successful actor. He used the name Graves, a maternal family name, to distinguish himself from James. 

After “Gunsmoke”, Arness played in Western movies and TV series. He played Zeb Macahan in the series “How the West was Won”. That show was even more popular in Europe than in the US. It ended after three seasons because Arness’s leg bothered him so much he needed an operation. And that was going to put him out of commission for six months. 

Arness died on June 3, 2011. He was 88.