James Arness Obituary | James Arness was an American actor best remembered for playing Marshal Matt Dillon in the CBS television series Gunsmoke for 20 years. Arness holds the distinction of having played Dillon for five decades:
James Arness, who died at the age of 88, was hardly the biggest film actor of all time, but he was surely one of the tallest, standing at 6ft 7in. Arness’s height and weight produced an indelible impression as US Marshal Matt Dillon in the television western series Gunsmoke, which he portrayed for 20 years.
As the poker-faced, taciturn marshal of Dodge City who tries to keep law and order on the western frontier in the 1870s, Arness had to perform standing in a hole in medium-close shots, or else other actors stood on boxes so their faces could be in frame.
His height was undoubtedly a consideration in his casting as the titular character in The Thing from Another World (1951), commonly known as The Thing, which launched his career.
Arness thought the part of the alien plant species that feeds on human blood was humiliating, commenting that his make-up “made me seem like a huge carrot.” In another science fiction film, Them! (1954).
he played a straight man as an FBI agent on the trail of giant mutant atomic ants, which served as ideal practise for his later encounters with human creatures in Gunsmoke.
He aspired to be a navy pilot when the United States entered World War II, but his height disqualified him. After receiving catastrophic injuries to his right leg during the 1944 invasion of Anzio, Italy, he joined the army and was given the Purple Heart.
His wounds bothered him and prevented him from mounting a horse, a significant handicap for a western hero. He remained in the hospital for over a year, and nurses thought that with his booming voice, he should be on radio.
Arness followed their advise and worked as an announcer and disc jockey for a Minneapolis radio station before deciding to try his luck in Hollywood.
From 1955 through 1975, he starred in the weekly series Gunsmoke, followed by Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge and four further made-for-television Gunsmoke films in the 1990s.
Arness achieved cult status in Europe for his performance as Zeb Macahan in the Western series How the West Was Won. He was actor Peter Graves’ older brother.
Arness played the stoic Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, which aired on CBS from September 1955 to March 1975, and kept the peace in rough and tumble Dodge City, Kan. It established a record for the longest-running live-action primetime series by seasons, which has since been surpassed by NBC’s Law & Order.
Arness’ 20-year primetime TV run is another record that has subsequently been surpassed by Kelsey Grammer’s two-decade run as Frasier Crane on two shows, Cheers and then Frasier.
“Our network headquarters at CBS Studio Center in Studio City looks out at Stage 3, which was home to Gunsmoke’s “Dodge City,” CBS said in a statement on Friday. All of us here today lift our hats to Mr. Arness for everything he’s done for Gunsmoke, CBS, and the medium we all love.”
Arness aspired to be a naval fighter pilot but was concerned that his bad eyesight would prevent him from doing so. His 6-foot, 7-in (2.01 m) frame, however, terminated his chances because the aviator height restriction was set at 6 ft, 2 in.
In March 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army and reported to Fort Snelling. On January 22, 1944, he landed as a rifleman with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division on Anzio Beachhead.
Because of his height, Arness was the first man ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water, which came up to his waist.
During the Battle of Anzio, he was seriously injured in his right leg and was medically evacuated from Italy to the United States, where he was admitted to the 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa.
Arness sought for and was hired as an announcer for a radio station in the Twin Cities on the suggestion of Graves, then travelled to Los Angeles and won a role as Loretta Young’s brother in the 1947 film The Farmer’s Daughter.
In 1948, he married Virginia Chapman and adopted Craig, her son from a previous marriage. Jenny and Rolf were the couple’s two children, and they divorced in 1963.
He married Janet Surtees in 1978, and they lived in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He is survived by her, Rolf Arness, and a stepson, Jim Surtees. Six grandchildren and a great-grandchild are also survivors. Jenny Arness passed away in 1975, and Craig passed away in 2004.
Following his performance in The Thing as a thawed-out alien bent on eating humanity, he was discovered by John Wayne, who signed him to a contract with his production firm, Batjac Prods.
The performers collaborated on films such as Big Jim McLain (1952), Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953), and The Sea Chase (1953). (1955).
Wayne recommended Arness for the role of Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, which was making its television debut after first airing on radio in 1955.
According to folklore, John Wayne was offered the major part of Matt Dillon in the long-running television series Gunsmoke, but he declined, instead preferring James Arness for the role.
The only portion of this narrative that is genuine is that Wayne did recommend Arness for the role. In 1955, Wayne introduced Arness in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke. Arness, a Norwegian-German, had to colour his naturally blond hair darker for the part.
Gunsmoke made Arness and his co-stars, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, and Buck Taylor renowned around the world, and it endured for two decades, becoming the longest-running primetime drama series in US television history when it ended in 1975.
The series’ season record was tied in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order, and it was tied again in 2018 with Law & Order: SVU’s season 20.
Gunsmoke, unlike the latter show, featured its lead character in each of its 20 seasons; Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes and was in the top ten in the ratings for 11 more seasons, for a total of 13, including four consecutive seasons at number one.
“Jim, go ahead and take it,” Wayne advised. “You’re too large for photos.” Gregory Peck and I don’t need a big lug like you towering over us. Make a name for yourself in television.”