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James Arness Biography


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Birth Name: James Arness
Born: 05/26/1923
Birth Place: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Death Place: Brentwood, California, USA
Died: 06/03/2011


Born James King Aurness in Minneapolis, MN on May 26, 1923, he was the eldest son of medical supply salesman Rolf Aurness (whose original surname, Aursnes, was changed after immigrating to the United States from Norway) and Ruth Duesler, a newspaper columnist. His younger brother would later assume a family name from his mother's side and find fame as Peter Graves, the star of "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1967-1973) and numerous films like "Airplane" (1980). Arness took little interest in formal education, having set his sights on a career at sea, thereby not surprisingly struggling through high school before graduating in 1942. He labored at various jobs before trying his hand at college, but made it through through only one semester at Beloit College before receiving his draft notice. Training at Georgia's Camp Wheeler preceded his deployment to North Africa as part of the 3rd Infantry Division. There, he participated in the invasion of Anzio, and was severely wounded in action, which earned him the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other medals. However, the injuries he suffered to his leg and foot would plague him for the rest of his life, and at times, require him to shoot any scenes that required him to walk for extended periods at the beginning of the day.

After several surgeries, he was honorably discharged and sent to recuperate in a stateside hospital in Iowa. His brother visited him there and suggested that he might look into radio announcing as a post-military career choice. After taking a radio course at the University of Minnesota, he was recommended for a job at a local station. However, a friend suggested that he might find even greater success if he tried his hand at acting, so he soon relocated to Los Angeles. After studying with actor Harry Hayden, he was discovered by an agent and given the role of Loretta Young's brother in "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947), which earned an Academy Award for the actress. Minor roles in major films like "Battleground" (1949), where he was first billed as "James Arness," and John Ford's "Wagonmaster" (1950) followed, but by 1950, his career appeared to have stalled. He spent much of his time living on the beach and surfing at San Onofre, but after meeting and marrying actress Virginia Chapman, his co-star in a production of "Candide," he decided to dig back into the work and seek out better roles.

Due to his height - Arness was 6' 7" - those were often hard to come by, leaving him frequently cast in parts that were little more than background players. One of these roles, however, would be part of a classic film, Howard Hawks' science fiction chiller "The Thing from Another World" (1951). Arness played the title role, an ambulatory and homicidal plant creature that threatens the fast-talking crew of an Antarctic military base. Though covered in makeup and without a single line, Arness' imposing figure did much to provide the film with the necessary scares, but the role did little to advance his career. It took the intervention of actor John Wayne to give Arness the boost he needed. Spotted in a play by Wayne's famous agent, Charles K. Feldman, he was introduced to Wayne, who signed him to a contract at his production company, BatJac. He also gave Arness prominent roles in three of his motion pictures: the Red-baiting action film "Big Jim McLain" (1952), an Army Indian scout in the John Farrow Western "Hondo" (1953), and as a German sailor in "The Sea Chase" (1955). The exposure from the Duke helped. By 1954, Arness was landing more substantive parts. Among them was a lead in another science fiction classic, 1954's "Them!" which pitted him against ants made king-sized by radiation.

Arness' movie career appeared to be moving forward with some rapidity when he was offered the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on a television adaptation of the venerable radio program, "Gunsmoke." Wayne himself suggested Arness for the role after allegedly turning it down (though some sources deny this), but the actor was wary about signing on to a series, fearing that it would put a crimp in his film career. He eventually relented, and Wayne himself introduced the series for its debut on Sept. 10, 1955. At the time, Western TV shows were largely considered a genre for younger viewers, as evidenced by programs like "The Lone Ranger" (ABC, 1949-1957). But "Gunsmoke" was decidedly adult and dramatic in tone; the violence, though tame by modern standards, was real, and the stories revolved more around the day-to-day challenges of living in Dodge City in 1873 than any cowboys-and-Indians adventure. Making sense of it all was Marshal Matt Dillon, a largely taciturn man who believed in the law and fought fair, yet was not afraid to use his gun if necessary, as the famous opening credits sequence showed. Arness's height and grave demeanor helped to sell the idea that Dillon meant business about keeping the peace in this small Kansas town.

"Gunsmoke" was slow to build an audience, but by 1957, it had made its way into the Top 10, and would eventually take the No. 1 spot in the ratings for four solid years. It also launched a wave of Westerns for adults that took over the airwaves in the late 1950s and early 1960s, though none could match the program for sheer viewer loyalty. As for Arness, he was front and center in one of the most popular shows on television, with his fear about a failed movie career largely coming true. He made just two films during its entire network run; both were Westerns, and in one - the 1959 Bob Hope comedy "Alias Jesse James" - he played Matt Dillon. The work and exposure from countless "Gunsmoke" tie-in products like comics, novels and games certainly quelled his concerns. After suffering a decline in viewership in the late 1960s, "Gunsmoke" was on the verge of cancellation, but made a remarkable comeback in the early 1970s until its abrupt cancellation in 1976. When it left the airwaves, it was the longest-running primetime dramatic series in the history of television, and the last Western of its kind on television for many years. For his efforts, Arness was nominated for an Emmy three times, and shared in its considerable profits, having produced 32 of its episodes.

Arness returned to television almost immediately in another Western-themed series. "How the West Was Won" (ABC, 1978-79) began as a TV movie called "The Macahans" (ABC, 1976), about a mountain man (Arness) who leads his late brother's family West to establish a new life there. Arness' presence assured a follow-up, which began as an Emmy-nominated miniseries (ABC, 1977) before launching into a full-blown weekly drama on the same network. Though not a major hit with American audiences, the show had lasting appeal in Europe, where it was shown numerous times in the decades that followed. Arness made one final stab at a weekly series with "McClain's Law" (NBC, 1981-82) which cast him as a retired cop who returns to the force to show a new group of officers the right way to deal with lawbreakers, i.e., though old-fashioned rough-ups. Changing viewership tastes, combined with Arness' long association with Westerns, spelled a quick demise.

Arness returned to television sporadically in the years after "McClain," though when he did, it was in typically iconic roles. He was Jim Bowie in "The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory" (NBC, 1987), an Emmy-nominated TV movie about the ill-fated standoff with the Mexican army, and in 1988, starred in a TV remake (CBS) of "Red River" (1948), which cast him in one of John Wayne's most memorable roles. But the nostalgia over "Gunsmoke" never faded from the minds of TV audiences, and in 1987, he reprised the role in five CBS made-for-TV movies: "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge City" (1987), "Gunsmoke: The Last Apache" (1990), "Gunsmoke: To the Last Man" (1992), "Gunsmoke: The Long Ride" (1993) and "Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice" (1994). The reunion movies deviated little from the original series, although many viewers who believed that the long-celibate Dillon should end up with Amanda Blake's Miss Kitty were dismayed to see in "The Last Apache" that Dillon had indeed been with another woman: guest star Michael Learned in a 1973 episode which was used to create a long-last daughter (Amy Stock-Poynton) in the subsequent films.

Arness retired from acting in 2001, citing that he no longer possessed the stamina to shoulder the rigors of the work. He spent his time supporting charities and responding to the steady flow of fan mail for his work on "Gunsmoke," which remained popular in reruns nearly a half-century after its debut. In 2003, the Los Angeles city mayor at a City Hall ceremony celebrated his career and war heroism with a resolution. Arness returned to the news under sad circumstances when his younger brother, Peter Graves, died suddenly after a family luncheon on March 14, 2010. A little over a year later, Arness passed away in his sleep at his Brentwood home on June 3, 2011. He was 88 years old.