James Arness

James Arness Biography

Radio Personality, Television Actor, Actor, Film Actor (1923–2011)
Actor James Arness received fame and fortune for his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon on the television series Gunsmoke, which aired from 1955 to 1975.


James Arness was born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After recovering from a severe leg injury received in World War II, he moved to Hollywood and began acting in films. He became a star in his role as Marshal Matt Dillon on television's Gunsmoke, a Western set in 1870s Kansas. He appeared on the series from 1955 to 1975. Arness was 88 when he died on June 3, 2011, in Los Angeles, California.

Early Life

James Arness was born James King Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26, 1923. He grew up with his younger brother, Peter (who later changed his name and became the actor Peter Graves). Arness was an indifferent student but followed his mother's wishes that he enroll in college.

World War II Service

With World War II raging during his freshman year, Arness understood that he would likely soon be called up to fight. He wanted to become a fighter pilot, but his impressive height (he was 6'7") made that path impossible. Instead, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943.

Arness served as an infantryman in a unit that was sent to Italy. There, in 1944, he was hit by machine-gun fire, which resulted in severe injuries to his right leg. He needed multiple surgeries and almost a year of hospitalization to recover, and had a small limp for the rest of his life. He received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service.

Hollywood Career and 'Gunsmoke'

Arness worked in radio in Minneapolis before moving to Hollywood in 1946. Interested in acting, he took lessons and changed his last name from Aurness to Arness. He made his film debut in The Farmer's Daughter (1947), in which he played one of Loretta Young's brothers. He then got steady work, including the title role in the science-fiction film The Thing From Another World (1951). In Big Jim McLain (1952), he worked with John Wayne, who became a good friend.

When the popular radio drama Gunsmoke was adapted for television, there was a search for the right actor to play Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad, who voiced the role on radio, was deemed too rotund for TV). The rumor that Wayne was offered the part is probably false—he would not have been expected to give up a successful movie career—but it is possible that he recommended Arness for the role. When Arness was reluctant to commit to TV, Wayne helped convince him to take the job.

On Gunsmoke, Arness gave an understated yet compelling performance as a lawman who was the moral backbone of Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s. He received three Emmy Award nominations for the role. Though he was the star of the show, Arness did not make demands, instead forging a convivial on-set atmosphere. He appeared on the series, one of the longest-running on TV, from 1955 to 1975.

Later Years

Though Gunsmoke made Arness a millionaire, he continued to work after it went off the air, appearing in TV miniseries such as How the West Was Won (1977), and in made-for-TV movies like The Alamo (1987). He also reprised his role as Marshal Dillon in five Gunsmoke sequels.

Arness experienced difficult times in his personal life--his first marriage ended in divorce, and he lost a daughter to a drug overdose in 1975--but he was happy with his second wife, Janet Surtees, whom he married in 1978. And, thanks to the character who made him famous, he was named an honorary U.S. Marshal. On June 3, 2011, at the age of 88, Arness died at his home in Los Angeles, California.

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