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James MacArthur Biography

Home > Actors > M > MacArthur, James > Biography

Birth Name: James MacArthur
Born: 12/08/1937
Birth Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Death Place: Florida, USA
Died: 10/28/2010

Born Dec. 8, 1937 in Los Angeles, he was adopted by acclaimed stage actress Helen Hayes and her husband, famed playwright Charles MacArthur - best known for co-writing with Ben Hecht the comedies "The Front Page" and "Twentieth Century." The couple named him James Gordon MacArthur and raised him in Nyack, NY. The leading lights of the American stage were a constant presence in his house during his early years; Lillian Gish was his godmother, while figures like John Barrymore, John Steinbeck, Robert Benchley and Harpo Marx were frequent guests. MacArthur himself made his performing debut at the age of 11 in a radio drama opposite his mother. A year later, he joined his sister Mary in a production of "The Corn is Green," which led to other stage productions. During this period, he also gained an invaluable education in backstage work as a set painter and sound and lighting technician.

MacArthur's big break came with an episode of the CBS anthology series "Climax!" (1954-59). John Frankenheimer directed the episode "Deal a Blow," which concerned a young man whose life is thrown into turmoil by an impulsive act. The story was later turned into a Frankenheimer-helmed feature retitled "The Young Stranger" (1956). MacArthur received critical praise for his performance, as well as a BAFTA nomination for Most Promising Newcomer, which launched his career in features. He was an earnest and athletic lead in two live action adventures for Walt Disney Pictures: "The Light in the Forest" (1958) cast MacArthur as a young American colonial boy who is kidnapped by a Native American tribe and raised as one of their own, while "Third Man on the Mountain" (1959) concerned a young Swiss boy who attempts to climb the mountain that killed his father. The movie also served as the inspiration for the popular Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.

MacArthur made both films during breaks from his freshman year of studies at Harvard University, but left college during his sophomore year to make his two biggest features for Disney. "Kidnapped" (1960) starred MacArthur as Robert Louis Stevenson's young hero who is shanghaied by unscrupulous seaman funded by his uncle to prevent him from attaining his father's fortunes, and Peter Finch as the Scottish swordsman who defended him. "The Swiss Family Robinson" saw MacArthur as the athletic Fritz, the eldest son of the shipwrecked family. The latter film was the highest grossing theatrical release of its year.

As he passed from his teen years into young adulthood, MacArthur attempted to branch out into more substantial characters than the earnest young men he had played for Disney. He made his Broadway debut opposite Jane Fonda in 1960's "Invitation to a March," and returned frequently to the stage throughout his career. Television offered him broader roles - most notably as a vicious killer on "The Untouchables" (ABC, 1959-1963) - but for the most part, he was cast as men struggling to assume adult roles and responsibilities, like his young doctor under fire in "The Interns" (1962) and a spoiled businessman's son who comes of age while fighting the Japanese Army during World War II in "Cry of Battle" (1963). In 1963, he was the eldest son of Henry Fonda's large brood in "Spencer's Mountain," which was based on the same source material as "The Waltons" (CBS, 1972-1981).

MacArthur worked steadily in supporting roles throughout the 1960s; he was a young American lieutenant who escaped the massacre of Allied troops in "The Battle of the Bulge" (1965) and an inexperienced Navy ensign on board a submarine stalking a Soviet vessel in "The Bedford Incident" (1965). In 1968, he took a small role as a preacher in Ted Post's "Hang 'Em High," a violent Western starring Clint Eastwood. The film's producer, Leonard Freeman, was also casting for a new crime series he was overseeing for CBS, and called on MacArthur to play the sidekick to Jack Lord's established police detective. The series was "Hawaii Five-O," which would be MacArthur's steady job for the next 11 years.

MacArthur was actually not the first person cast as Danny "Danno" Williams; in the series pilot, Tim O'Kelly played the role, but Freeman replaced the actor with MacArthur when the show went to series. Danno's job was to provide youthful exuberance and physicality to the investigations of the Five-O team, as well as lightness to the moody presence of Jack Lord as the team's chief, Steve McGarrett. The character's most lasting contribution to popular culture was his naming in McGarrett's frequent catch phrase, "Book 'em, Danno," which he uttered to MacArthur at the conclusion of most cases. MacArthur left the lucrative series before the start of its twelfth and final season. He had grown tired of the role, which had grown repetitive over the years. He then resumed the career he had enjoyed prior to the creation of "Five-O": a supporting player and occasional lead in episodic television and live theater. As the decades passed, his screen appearances grew fewer, so he devoted his time to business ventures and golfing, as well as the occasional retrospective on "Five-O" or his Disney films.

In 1996, he reprised his role as Danno on a pilot for a remake of "Hawaii Five-O" produced by Stephen J. Cannell. In the never-aired project, Danno had risen to the position of Hawaii's governor. The state later honored him with its annual Film in Hawaii award as part of the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival. MacArthur died on Oct. 28, 2010 at the age of 72. At the time of his passing, he was reportedly planning to make a guest appearance on the revived "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 2010- ).