American actor James Arness had an unremarkable Minneapolis childhood, but his wartime experiences shattered that normality - literally. During the battle of Anzio, Arness' right leg was peppered with machine gun bullets, and when the bones were set they didn't mend properly, leaving him with a slight but permanent limp. The trauma of the experience mellowed into aimlessness after the war. Arness became a "beach bum," lived out of his car, and worked intermittently as a salesman and carpenter. Acting was treated equally lackadaisically, but by 1947 Arness had managed to break into Hollywood on the basis of his rugged good looks and his 6'6" frame. Few of his screen roles were memorable, though one has become an object of cult worship: Arness was cast as the menacingly glowing space alien, described by one character as "an intellectual carrot," in The Thing (1951). For a time it looked as though Arness would continue to flounder in supporting roles, while his younger brother, actor Peter Graves, seemed destined for stardom. John Wayne took a liking to Arness when the latter was cast in Wayne's Big Jim McLain (1953). Wayne took it upon himself to line up work for Arness, becoming one of the withdrawn young actor's few friends. In 1955, Wayne was offered the role of Matt Dillon in the TV version of the popular radio series Gunsmoke. Wayne turned it down but recommended that Arness be cast and even went so far as to introduce him to the nation's viewers in a specially filmed prologue to the first Gunsmoke episode. Truth be told, Arness wasn't any keener than Wayne to be tied down to a weekly series, and as each season ended he'd make noises indicating he planned to leave. This game went on for each of the 20 seasons that Gunsmoke was on the air, the annual result being a bigger salary for Arness, more creative control over the program (it was being produced by his own company within a few years) and a sizeable chunk of the profits and residuals. When Gunsmoke finally left the air in 1975, Arness was the only one of the original four principals (including Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone and Dennis Weaver) still appearing on the series. Arness made plans to take it easy after his two-decade Gunsmoke hitch, but was lured back to the tube for a one-shot TV movie, The Macahans (1976). This evolved into the six-hour miniseries How the West Was Won (1977) which in turn led to a single-season weekly series in 1978. All these incarnations starred Arness, back in the saddle as Zeb Macahan. The actor tried to alter his sagebrush image in a 1981 modern-day cop series, McClain's Law -- which being set in the southwest permitted Arness to ride a horse or two. It appeared, however that James Arness would always be Matt Dillon in the hearts and minds of fans, thus Arness obliged his still-faithful public with three Gunsmoke TV movies, the last one (Gunsmoke: The Last Apache) released in 1992. In between these assignments, James Arness starred in a 1988 TV-movie remake of the 1948 western film classic Red River, in which he filled the role previously played by his friend and mentor John Wayne.
photo credit: Print Collector/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
- James King Aurness
- 1947 - 2003
- May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, MN
- June 3, 2011
by Hal Erickson biography