James Arness

James Arness Biography

James Arness

James Arness

James King Arness, real name James Aurness, born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was an American film and television actor, a TV actor with decades of experience, he tied his career (which started on the big screen) the interpretation of two famous western characters: for twenty years has indeed personified Matt Dillon, the sheriff of Dodge City in the longest-running prime-time television series of all time, Gunsmoke (1955-1975). Following the closure of Gunsmoke, rose to interpret Uncle Zeb Macahan in another successful series, The Conquest of the West (1976-1979).

Early Stage of Life

Born to parents of Norwegian, a seller of medicines and a journalist, James King Arness after high school joined the army in 1943. Posted on the African front, after a short period in Casablanca, took part with the 3rd Infantry Division at Anzio. Ten days after the invasion, was seriously wounded in the feet and legs by a German machine gun and so it was discharged from the army, taking with him for the rest of his life a serious consequences of his injuries. During his convalescence, his brother Peter suggested that he take part in a course in radio at the University of Minnesota, training that enabled him shortly afterwards to become an announcer for a radio station in Minneapolis.

Acting Career

Later, after following the suggestion of a friend, he went to Hollywood hoping to find work as an extra and in the meantime he studied at the Bliss-Hayden Theatre School under the direction of the actor Harry Haiden. Noticed by an agent, got his first small role – a supporting role of the heroine Loretta Young’s brother in the movie “Farmer’s Daughter”(1947), a comedy starring Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten.

It is on this occasion that, behind a board, the actor changed his last name, removing the “U” and becoming known officially as James Arness, to pursue a career in the entertainment world that saw him appear in numerous successful films, such as The Thing from Another World (1951) and Assault on Earth (1954), two classics of science fiction of the period, the western Carbine Williams (1952), starring James Stewart, and the drama aviatorio Island in the Sky (1953) opposite John Wayne.

Arness was a close friend of John Wayne at his side and played in the film Big Jim McClain and in 1953 in a supporting role in Wayne’s only 3D movie Hondo. John Wayne suggested him for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in the U.S. western series Gunsmoke. Arness played the role for twenty years in a total of 618 episodes. That was the longest time in U.S. television, in which an actor played the same role in the same series (the record was set in 2004 by Kelsey Grammer in the role of Dr. Frasier Crane in the series Cheers and Frasier). For this purpose, Arness was the honorary title Honorary United States Marshal, in recognition of its unique incarnation of the image and the traditions of the U.S. Marshals Service.

In 1955, the same Wayne reported him for the lead role in the television series Gunsmoke. Arness initially declined the proposal, since convinced that participation in a TV series would have slowed down his film career, but shortly afterwards accepted. The interpretation of the sheriff Dillon made him famous in the United States, turning him into an icon of the western.

Although Arness is identified by the incarnation of the long-term character of Marshal Matt Dillon primarily with Western, Arness starred in two well-known science fiction or horror movies: The Thing from Another World and Them.  In the movie “The Thing from Another World” however, he was barely recognizable under the Alien mask. After the end of Gunsmoke Arness continued playing primarily in films and television series of the Western genre. These included 11 episodes of The West Was Won and 5 made for television feature-length films continuation of Gunsmoke, which were produced between 1987 and 1994. A notable exception is the main role as a big-city cop Jim McClain in the crime series McClain’s Law, 16 episodes were produced from between 1981 and 1982. And then he continued to act until 1994, the year of his retirement.

Although Arness is primarily associated with the classical roles of heroes of westerns in the early fifties, he achieved success through participation in the science fiction film. In total, he has appeared in over 30 films in the period between 1947-1956 before reaching national fame; thanks to the work on television. In 1960, he received his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” for his contribution to the television.


James Arness died of natural causes on June 3, 2011 at the age of 88, at his home in Los Angeles. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Private Life

James Arness was with a height of 2.01 meters (6 feet 7 inches), one of the largest series actors in a leading role. He was married twice and had four children, first to actress Virginia Chapman; they divorced in 1960, and later with Janet Surtress. His first wife died of a drug overdose in 1976. His Father was Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a businessman, and his mother; Ruth Duesler, a journalist. His father’s ancestry was Norwegian; his mother’s was German. He was the older brother of actor Peter Graves, famous for the TV series Mission: Impossible.



  • The famous wife (The Farmer’s Daughter), directed by HC Potter (1947) (as James Aurness)
  • Roses Are Red, directed by James Tinling (1947) (as James Aurness)
  • Man from Texas, directed by Leigh Jason (1948) (uncredited)
  • Bastogne (Battleground), directed by William A. Wellman (1949) (as Jim Arness)
  • Wagon (Wagon Master), directed by John Ford (1950)
  • Stars in My Crown, directed by Jacques Tourneur (1950) (uncredited)
  • Sierra, directed by Alfred E. Green (1950) (as Jim Arness)
  • The assault on the mail train (Wyoming Mail), directed by Reginald Le Borg (1950)
  • Two Lost Worlds, directed by Norman Dwan (1951) (as Jim Aurness)
  • The pirates of the Caribbean (Double Crossbones), directed by Charles Barton (1951) (uncredited)
  • My kiss you lose (Belle Le Grand), directed by Allan Dwan (1951) (uncredited)
  • The Thing from Another World (The Thing from Another World), directed by Christian Nyby (1951)
  • The lancers to the Rescue (Cavalry Scout), directed by Lesley Selander (1951)
  • Iron Man (The Iron Man), directed by Joseph Pevney (1951) (as Jim Arness)
  • Omerta (People Against O’Hara), directed by John Sturges (1951)
  • Carbine Williams (Carbine Williams), directed by Richard Thorpe (1952)
  • The White Lady (The Girl in White), directed by John Sturges (1952)
  • Marijuana (Big Jim McLain), directed by Edward Ludwig (1952)
  • Hellgate the great hell (Hellgate), directed by Charles Marquis Warren (1952)
  • Dan the terrible (Horizons West), directed by Budd Boetticher (1952)
  • The secret accomplice (The Lone Hand), directed by George Sherman (1953) (as Jim Arness)
  • The Island in the Sky (Island in the Sky), directed by William A. Wellman (1953)
  • The Veils of Bagdad (Veils of Bagdad), directed by George Sherman (1953) (as Jim Arness)
  • Hondo, directed by John Farrow (1953)
  • Assault on Earth (Them!), directed by Gordon Douglas (1954)
  • Between two loves (Her Twelve Men), directed by Robert Z. Leonard (1954)
  • Many Rivers to Cross (Many Rivers to Cross), directed by Roy Rowland (1955)
  • Lovers of the five seas (The Sea Chase), directed by John Farrow (1955)
  • The adventuress of Bahamas (Flame of the Islands), directed by Edward Ludwig (1956)
  • Life Traveling Saleslady (The First Traveling Saleslady), directed by Arthur Lubin (1956)
  • The Return of Arizona (Gun the Man Down), directed by Andrew McLaglen (1956)
  • Here comes Jesse James (Alias Jesse James), directed by Norman Z. McLeod (1959) (uncredited)
  • Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987 TV movie)
  • Red River (1988 TV movie)[16]
  • Gunsmoke II: The Last Apache (1990 TV movie)
  • Gunsmoke III: To the Last Man (1992 TV movie)
  • Gunsmoke IV: The Long Ride (1993 TV movie)
  • Gunsmoke V: One Man’s Justice (1993 TV movie)


  • The Lone Ranger (1950, 1 episode as Deputy Bud Titus
  • Lux Video Theatre, “The Chase” (1954)
  • Gunsmoke (1955–1975)
  • Front Row Center (1956)
  • The Red Skelton Chevy Special (1959)
  • The Chevrolet Golden Anniversary Show (1961)
  • A Salute to Television’s 25th Anniversary (1972)
  • The Macahans (1976)
  • How The West Was Won (1977-1979 TV series)
  • McClain’s Law (1981-1982 TV series)


Awards and Nominations

1957: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Dramatic Series

1958: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic or Comedy Series

1959: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series

Some Trivial Facts of James Arness

  • He Attended Beloit College.
  • His daughter, Jenny Lee Arness, who appeared in two episodes of Gunsmoke, committed suicide in 1975.
  • An Autobiography on James Arness was released in September 2001, with a foreword by Burt Reynolds.
  • Gunsmoke series was filmed in 1987 Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, followed by Gunsmoke II: The Last Apache (1990), Gunsmoke III: To The Last Man (1992), Gunsmoke IV: The Long Ride and V Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice, 1993, the last two sequels in the series.
  • In 1968, he donated his 1,400 acre ranch in Northern Los Angeles County to the Brandis Institute. He also donated his 60 ft. catamaran ‘Sea Smoke’, that was specially built for him, to the Sea Scouts.
  • He had a long term relationship and stayed with actress Thordis Brandt, although they never married.







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