Actor James Arness has passed away. A Hollywood icon, he was probably most recognizable in the role as the tall, dependable, and quiet Marshall Matt Dillon on the television series “Gunsmoke,” which ran an impressive 20 seasons from 1955-1975. The show has the distinction for being the longest running dramatic series on American television, which was only recently tied by “Law and Order” in 2010.James King Aurness was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 26, 1923. His father, Rolf, sold medical supplies as a traveling salesman, and his mother, Ruth, later became a newspaper columnist. James dreamed of going to sea someday, but was drafted into the army as an infantry soldier after attending only one semester at Beloit College. After landing in Casablanca, Arness went on to be part of the invasion force at Anzio. He was severely wounded in the leg and foot by German machine-gun fire and was given a medical discharge.
On the suggestion of his brother, Peter, James took a course in radio at the University of Minnesota. On the recommendation of his teacher, he landed a job as an announcer. He showed promise, but at the urging of a friend traveled to Hollywood in hopes of getting work as a film extra. While studying theater, he appeared in a play and was noticed by agent Leon Lance. The agent got him a role starring as Loretta Young’s brother in 1947’s “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The director, H.C. Potter persuaded Arness to drop the “u” from his last name. Officially known as James Arness, his break provided him little work. While acting in “Candida” at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, he married leading lady Virginia Chapman. She encouraged him to study acting and pursue roles more earnestly. With her advice, Arness began landing small parts with more frequency. The roles were mostly due to his 6’6” height, and he was usually cast as a villain. In 1951, he appeared as a ferociously hostile alien in “The Thing from Another World,” and then in 1954, he played the role of a government agent in the sci-fi film “Them.”
In 1955, Arness took the role as Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” on the advice of his friend actor John Wayne. The success of the show made Arness world-famous. When the series was cancelled in 1975, Arness remained busy in various television roles. He even went on to reprise the role of Marshall Dillon in a few television movies. In 1994, at the age of 71, Arness retired.
Arness died of natural causes on Friday in Brentwood. Two sons, Craig and Rolf, survive Arness. A daughter, Jenny Lee, and his younger brother, actor Peter Graves, precede him in death.