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James Arness

James ArnessAKA James King Aurness

Born: 26-May-1923
Birthplace: Minneapolis, MN
Died: 3-Jun-2011
Location of death: Brentwood, CA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Interred, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, CA

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Actor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke

Military service: US Army (3rd Infantry, WWII, wounded at Anzio, Italy)

James Arness grew up in Minneapolis. When World War II broke out, he wanted to become a navy pilot, but his enormous height disqualified him. Instead he joined the Army, and received a Purple Heart after suffering serious injuries to his right leg during the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy. His injuries left him hospitalized for almost a year, and during that time he kept hearing from nurses that with his booming voice, he ought to be in radio. He went to work as an announcer and disc jockey at a Minneapolis station, then decided to try his luck in Hollywood.

He had a showy supporting role in his first film, The Farmer's Daughter starring Joseph Cotten and Loretta Young. He played the monster in the original The Thing, and later starred in Them!, battling giant ants. His first leading role was Two Lost Worlds in 1950, which left Arness shipwrecked on a volcanic island filled with dinosaurs.

Gunsmoke was a popular radio series, which aired CBS Radio from 1952 to 1961. William Conrad was radio's Matt Dillon, the Marshal of Dodge City, but Conrad was easily a hundred pounds overweight (he later played the rotund private eye Cannon and the bigger half of Jake and the Fatman). For the TV adaptation, producers offered the part to John Wayne, but Wayne was a movie star and television was a newfangled medium. Wayne and Arness had made the anti-Communist film Big Jim McLain three years earlier, and the two men had become friends and made several more films together. Wayne suggested Arness would be perfect as Dillon, and even introduced the first episode, before the opening credits.

At first, Gunsmoke was half an hour, and filmed in black and white. After six half-hour years, it expanded to a full hour. Beginning with its twelfth season, Gunsmoke was filmed in color. It was a top-10 rated show for thirteen of its twenty seasons, and it is still the longest-running dramatic show in prime time TV history. In total, 635 Gunsmoke episodes were filmed, plus five TV movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making it the only prime time TV series that ran in five consecutive decades. At six feet, seven inches tall, Arness was believed to be the tallest actor ever to star in a television series. In Gunsmoke's medium-close shots, the other actors were usually standing on elevated platforms, so their faces could be in the camera frame.

After Gunsmoke, Arness starred on a few short-lived TV series, including How the West Was Won and the cop show McClain's Law. He died in 2011.

Father: Rolf E. Aurness (b. 1894)
Mother: Ruth Duesler Salisbury Aurness (b. 1899)
Brother: Peter Graves (actor)
Wife: Virginia Chapman (m. 1949, div. 1960, d. 1976)
Daughter: Jenny (dated Gregg Allman, d. 1975 suicide)
Son: Rolf Aurness (b. 1962)
Wife: Janet Surtrees (m. 1978)

    Beta Theta Pi Fraternity
    Purple Heart
    Bronze Star
    Hollywood Walk of Fame 1751 Vine St. (television)
    National Cowboy Hall of Fame 1981
    Endorsement of Liggett Group Chesterfield cigarettes
    Risk Factors: Smoking

    McClain's Law Det. Jim McClain (1981-82)
    How the West Was Won Zeb Macahan (1979)
    Gunsmoke Matt Dillon (US Marshal, 1955-75)

    Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice (10-Feb-1994) · Matt Dillon
    Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (8-May-1993) · Matt Dillon
    Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (10-Jan-1992) · Matt Dillon
    Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (18-Mar-1990) · Matt Dillon
    Red River (10-Apr-1988) · Thomas Dunson
    Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (26-Sep-1987) · Matt Dillon
    The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory (28-Jan-1987)
    How the West Was Won (6-Feb-1977)
    The Macahans (19-Jan-1976)
    Gun the Man Down (15-Nov-1956) · Rem Anderson
    The First Traveling Saleslady (Aug-1956) · Joel Kingdom
    The Sea Chase (4-Jun-1955) · Schlieter
    Many Rivers to Cross (23-Feb-1955) · Esau Hamilton
    Her Twelve Men (11-Aug-1954) · Ralph Munsey
    Them! (16-Jun-1954) · Robert Graham
    Hondo (27-Nov-1953) · Lennie
    Veils of Bagdad (7-Oct-1953)
    Island in the Sky (5-Sep-1953) · McMullen
    The Lone Hand (May-1953) · Gus Varden
    Horizons West (11-Oct-1952)
    Hellgate (5-Sep-1952) · George Redfield
    Big Jim McLain (30-Aug-1952)
    The Girl in White (23-May-1952)
    Carbine Williams (May-1952)
    The People Against O'Hara (1-Sep-1951) · John O'Hara
    Iron Man (18-Aug-1951) · Alex Mallick
    Cavalry Scout (13-May-1951)
    The Thing From Another World (6-Apr-1951) · The Thing
    Wyoming Mail (10-Oct-1950) · Russell
    Sierra (1-Jun-1950)
    Wagon Master (19-Apr-1950)
    Battleground (9-Nov-1949) · Garby
    The Farmer's Daughter (25-Mar-1947) · Peter

Official Website:

Author of books:
James Arness: An Autobiography (2001, memoir)

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