James Arness was best known for playing Marshal Matt Dillon for two decades on CBS’ Gunsmoke. He led an incredible life, serving in World War II and becoming an actor without little formal training in the craft. Although Arness died almost a decade ago, his work continues to be held in high regard by fans who grew up watching him keep the peace in Dodge City.
Arness was born James King Aurness on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, the son of businessman Rolf Aurness and journalist Ruth Duesler. He had one sibling, Peter Aurness, who would later become known as Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves. After serving in the war, Arness started working in radio in Minneapolis before hitchhiking to Hollywood to pursue acting. After appearing on The Farmer’s Daughter, Arness dropped the “u” in his name and would be credited as “James Arness” for the rest of his life.
Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman in 1948, and then to Janet Surtees in 1978. He had a son, Rolf, and daughter, Jenny, with Chapman. Arness adopted Chapman’s son Craig, who died in 2004. Jenny and Chapman died of drug overdoses in 1975 and 1977, respectively. Arness and Surtees were married for over 35 years at the time of his death in 2011. Arness died on June 3, 2011, at age 88 from natural causes. Here is a look at his life and career.
He served in the Battle of Anzio during World War II.
Arness had hoped to serve as a pilot but thought his poor eyesight would be a problem. His real issue though was his height. Although he could not serve as a pilot, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1943. He was a rifleman and served in the Battle of Anzio with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. During the battle, he wounded his right leg and was medically evacuated from Italy to Iowa. While in the hospital, nurses suggested that his voice would be perfect for the radio, reports The Guardian. Incredibly, although he played a Western hero for most of his life, the leg injury made it impossible for him to ride a horse.
Arness stood 6-foot-7, making him one of the tallest leading men of his era.
While Arness’s height made it hard for him to be a pilot, it would later come in handy during his days as a leading man in Hollywood. He was one of the tallest leading men of his era. In an interview with the Santa Clarita Signal, Arness said his co-stars never stood on anything to make them look taller in shots they shared with him on Gunsmoke. “I guess people just had to get used to it,” he said. “The big thing with the show was that we had a lot of really fine actors, and more than that, we had started out with great writing.”
“The two gentlemen who originated the show — you know, it was on the radio for two or three years before they brought it to television — John Meston was the man who conceived the idea of the whole thing. He did most or all the radio shows, and then when it came to television, he did most of those for the first couple of years,” Arness later explained. “We had great stories, great writing, and we had fine casting and directors. The whole package just came together.”
John Wayne suggested Arness for the role of Matt Dillon.
Gunsmoke originated as a radio drama series in 1952 and was translated to television three years later, in 1955. There is a longstanding rumor that John Wayne was considered for the part of Matt Dillon, but he turned it down. This is not the case. In reality, Wayne suggested Arness for the part and even introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke. Wayne was still making box office hits at the time anyway, so it would have been a shocker for him to take a lead part in the then-nascent world of television.
“I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along,” Arness told the Signal in 2006. “I had been in about four pictures for his company with him. When the Gunsmoke offer came in, he said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.’ So he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”
After ‘Gunsmoke,’ Arness starred in ‘How the West Was Won’.
Arness might be known for Gunsmoke, but that was hardly the only thing he did. Arness’ career began in 1947 when he played one of Loretta Young’s brothers in The Farmer’s Daughter. He also played the title character in The Thing From Another World and starred in Them! He acted alongside John Wayne in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase. He can also be spotted in John Ford’s underrated Wagon Master.
After Gunsmoke ended in 1975, Arness played Zeb Macahan in How The West Was Won from 1977 to 1979. He tried his hand at a non-Western series with McClain’s Law, a short-lived 1981-1982 police drama. However, Arness was eventually pulled back to Gunsmoke, starring in five made-for-TV movies between 1987 and 1993.
“The problem that most TV actors like myself have is that we’re usually offered the small type movies, where they can exploit our name and shoot it on a small financial budget,” Arness said in 1962. “In my case, pictures like that simply want to take advantage of the Matt Dillon reputation, which is exactly what I don’t want. I want major pictures – and I don’t care if it’s not the leading role.”
Arness said he still watched ‘Gunsmoke’ after retiring.
Actors usually have a hard time watching their own work, but this was not a problem for Arness. He often talked about watching Gunsmoke whenever he saw it on TV. “What made us different from other Westerns was the fact that Gunsmoke wasn’t just action and a lot of shooting. They were character study shows,” Arness once told the Associated Press. “They’re interesting to watch all these years later.”
“I love to watch the old shows. Many of them I never had a chance to see when we did them because it was (on television) on Saturday night and I was usually out doing something else at the time. So there are many of the shows that I had never seen,” Arness told the Signal. “It’s a lot of fun to watch. TV Land, they’re on there; we were on the Westerns channel but then a few months ago they took us off. That was too bad, because we were on two hours every night, seven days a week.”
Arness died at 88.
Arness died from natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011, a family spokesman said at the time. He was interned at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is a member of the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
In 2006, Arness said he felt like the “luckiest guy in the world” because of his experiences. He believed the family seen on Gunsmoke was why people kept going back to it for two decades. “The Gunsmoke family was the thing that people got used to, and (they) wanted to see that in their homes on Saturday nights, you see,” he told the Signal. “That was a big factor.”