James Arness is a name that probably rings a bell if you were a fan of Westerns back in the golden age of television. He’s an actor deserving of review and that’s exactly what we are about to do. Find out how he got his start in show business and what his first breakout role was that still retains a cult status to this day in just a moment, but first, let’s take a look at his formative years.
From Humble Beginnings To The Horrors Of War
James Arness – whom you probably know from a little show called Gunsmoke – had a pretty typical childhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father was Rolf Aurness, a businessman of sorts, and his mother Ruth was a journalist. The Aurness family as they were then known were Methodists and were your typical American family just trying to get by in the years following the great depression.
James went to West High School in Minneapolis and worked as a delivery boy for a local Jewelry business to help pay the bills. He was a mediocre student and skipped class as often as he could manage but he eventually graduated from High School in 1942.
Despite having such a mundane upbringing it was his time spent in the armed forces during wartime that proved to be the most jolting and molding era of his life.
During the battle of Anzio, where he served as a rifleman in the US 3rd infantry division of the Army in what was called Operation Shingle, James’ right leg was sprayed with a fire of bullets from a machine gun. Although he received prompt medical attention, his bones, once set, did not mend properly – resulting in a minute yet permanent limp. Arness was honorably discharged from the Army on January 29, 1945, with full honors and several decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart.
From Aimless Wanderer To Movie Star
Following his traumatic experiences in the war, he turned to a life of aimless wandering to cope. As a beach bum of sorts, he first hitchhiked then lived out of his vehicle and took on odd jobs in sales and carpentry to get by. Among his two main hobbies at the time were surfing the waves of San Onofre Surf beach and performing in small theater productions. He treated his proclivity for acting with a similar degree of disregard as he did with the rest of his life at the time, but eventually managed to catch a break and found his way into the marquee lights of Hollywood.
Perhaps it was his hardy good looks or his tall frame – standing at 6’6″ – that helped him find success in the mercilessly competitive battleground that is Tinseltown, but soon he achieved stardom for his work both on the big and small screen.
He had a few memorable roles that helped immortalize him as one of show businesses’ legendary thespian elites including, the first of which was in the 1947 film The Farmers Daughter alongside Loretta Young, but one role, in particular, helped elevate him the status of a cult icon.
Arness was cast as the nefarious irradiated intergalactic space alien in The Thing in 1951. From there, however, it looked like there weren’t many opportunists for the actor that played as one commentator described ‘an intellectual carrot’. His career floundered for a while leaving the young actor to believe that his future would consist of a long slew of supporting roles and nothing more. He starred in yet another sci-fi flick ‘Them’ in 1954, but after that, he struggled to find work.
In contrast, his younger brother Peter Graves looked as he was poised to be the member of the family to have a more promising shot at stardom. Graves opted to use his mother’s surname instead of his paternal name Aurness. James on the other hand simply dropped the U from the name and made it his own. Come to think of it, Jim Phelps who starred in Mission Impossible and played Clarence Oveur in the Airplane movies was also a member of the Arness Family.
He Got By With A Little Help From His Friend
John Wayne, however, saw something in Arness that he liked, so when Arness was cast in John’s film Big Jim MacLain in 1953, it had appeared that James’ ship was finally starting to turn around. Wayne and Arness subsequently developed a bit of an alliance after working together on that film.
So when Wayne turned down the role of Matt Dillion on the television adaptation of the popular radio show Gunsmoke he dropped Arness’s name as a potential suitor for the part. He even went out of his way to make sure that Arness was properly introduced to the American audience by means of a flattering specially scripted intro to the first episode of the series.
Gunsmoke was the creation of Norman MacDonnell who also served as the series director. The primary writer was John Meston and the program went on to become the number 1 ranked show on television from 1957 to 1961.
20 Seasons Of Gunslingin’
In truth, Arness wasn’t exactly thrilled to be locked into a weekly series either, After the completion of each season, rumors would begin to circulate that he would soon make his departure. That same old story would play out for the entire 20 season run of Gunsmoke – each time with Arness’s salary growing larger and larger with each passing year. Arness would also be handed a greater deal of say as to how the series would play out.
With added creative control over the series, a hefty bit of the profits and residuals of the iconic western were being deposited into Arness’s bank account.
The series began to decline in ratings in the mid-60s. In 1967, CBS expanded the show to one hour. However, this move didn’t revive viewership, and the network planned on canceling but fans came to the rescue through an overwhelming display of support that included a successful letter-writing campaign.
Instead of canceling the series as they had intended, CBS canceled Gilligan’s Islands instead and moved the series to a Monday night timeslot where it stayed for the remainder of its historic run.
By the time that Gunsmoke finally sounded off in 1975, Arness was one of only four of the original principal actors to remain on the series throughout its entire run. Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Millburn Stone were also members of that exclusive club.
The cast and crew didn’t expect the cancellation when it finally came. Arness was somewhat discouraged that the show didn’t get a proper wrap-up. He had fully expected Gunsmoke to keep on going for another season or two allowing for all the plotlines to come to a fitting conclusion – but such is the way of television.
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Life After Gunsmoke: A Reluctant Return To Form
James had planned on taking things relatively easy after the lengthy 20 years run on the series. He appeared in the miniseries How the West was Won in 1977 as gun-toting Zeb Macahan which was then adapted into a series in 1978 that he’d star in as well. Interestingly, his character Zeb reached cult status in Europe where the series found an enthusiastic audience and fan base. The program was rebroadcast on networks all across the continent including in the nations of France, Italy, Sweden, and Germany.
Despite his success in these series, Arness had felt typecast as a gunslinger and desperately wanted to rebrand himself as something else. In 1981, he starred in McClain’s Law, a contemporary law enforcement drama series set in the southwest – which yet again saw the actor riding on the back of a horse from time to time.
In 1988, Arness would bite the bullet so-to-speak and star in the Western film Red River, a remake of the classic 1948 flick of the same title starring his late great friend John Wayne.
Despite his efforts of changing his image, it would seem that Arness would always be remembered for his Gunsmoke persona Matt Dillion in the eyes of the masses, so he reprised the role for the four made-for-TV reboot movies aired in the late eighties and early 90s.
Death And A Legacy Worth Celebrating
Just as he came into this world under ordinary circumstances, so was his departure. James Arness died in his home in Brentwood, California of natural causes on Friday, June 3, 2011. His remains were laid to rest in a mausoleum called the Sanctuary of Abiding Hope Alcove at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the same resting grounds that Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole, and Michael Jackson were entombed.
James Arness left behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. Among the many honors and accolades that immortalize his place in show business history is his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has also been inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
People magazine named him number 6 on their top 25 television stars of all time back in 1989.
Similarly, TV Guide also included him on their 50 Greatest Television Stars of All Time List in 1996.
James Arness was also a favorite of critics as well. He was nominated for Emmy Awards three times throughout his celebrated career. In 1957 he picked up his first Emmy nod and then followed that up in 58 and 59 with subsequent considerations.
There is no denying the fact that James Arness is one of the greatest actors of his breed in Hollywood history. He may have sustained a rather grizzly injury back in his Army days on the battlefield, but he never let that hold him back from achieving a life and career worth celebrating, and 88 years is a pretty good run considering all that he went through and managed to accomplish.
What was your favorite role that James Arness played, Matt Dillon on the 635 episodes of Gunsmoke or Zeb Macahan on How The West Was Won? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
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