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James "Marshal Dillon" Arness
Born James King Aurness
(1923-05-26)May 26, 1923
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Died June 3, 2011(2011-06-03) (aged 88)
Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of death Natural causes[1]
Place of burial Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery
Residence Brentwood, Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Education Minneapolis Washburn High School
Minneapolis West High School
Alma mater Beloit College
Occupation Actor
Years active 1947–94
Home town Minneapolis, Minnesota
Television Gunsmoke,
How the West Was Won
Spouse(s) Virginia Chapman
(m.1948–1960, divorced)
Janet Surtees
(m.1978–2011, his death)[2]
Children 3 sons (1 deceased)
Daughter (deceased)
Relatives Peter Graves
(brother, deceased)

James King Arness (May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011)[3] was an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years. Arness has the distinction of having played the role of Dillon in five separate decades: 1955 to 1975 in the weekly series, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s. In Europe Arness reached cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won. His younger brother was actor Peter Graves.

Early lifeEdit

Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis;[4] in 1923; he dropped the "u" when he started acting. His parents were Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a businessman, and his wife Ruth Duesler, a journalist. His father’s ancestry was Norwegian; his mother's was German.[5] The family name had been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father, Peter Aursnes, emigrated from Norway in 1887, he changed it to Aurness.[6] Arness and his family were Methodists.[7] Arness' younger brother was actor Peter Graves (1926–2010). Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.[6]

Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School and West High School in Minneapolis. During this time, Arness worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the Burlington freight yards in Minneapolis, and logging in Pierce, Idaho.[6] Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes", he graduated from high school in June 1942.[6]

Military service in World War IIEdit

Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, but he felt his poor eyesight would bar him. His height of 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) ended his hopes, since 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) was the limit for aviators. Instead, he was called for the Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943.[6] Arness served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy.[8]

According to James Arness – An Autobiography, he landed on Anzio Beachhead on January 22, 1944 as a rifleman with 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. Because of his height, he was the first ordered off his landing craft to determine the depth of the water; it came up to his waist.[6]

On January 29, 1945, having undergone surgery several times, Arness was honorably discharged. His wounds continued to bother him, and in later years Arness suffered from chronic leg pain,[2] which sometimes hurt when mounting a horse. His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart,[2] the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.[9]

Acting careerEdit

After his discharge, Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his performing career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945.[10]

Arness came to Hollywood by hitchhiking[11] and soon began acting and appearing in films. He began with RKO, which immediately changed his name from "Aurness". His film debut was as Loretta Young's (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in The Farmer's Daughter. He was credited in The Farmer's Daughter as AURNESS.[2]

Though identified with westerns, Arness also appeared in two science fiction films, The Thing from Another World (in which he portrayed the title character) and Them!. He was a close friend of John Wayne and co-starred with him in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase, and starred in Gun the Man Down for Wayne's company.

James Arness Matt Dillon Gunsmoke 1969

As Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, 1967.

An urban legend has it that John Wayne was offered the leading role of Matt Dillon in the longtime favorite television show Gunsmoke, but he turned it down, recommending instead James Arness for the role. The only part of this story that is true is that Wayne did indeed recommend Arness for the part. Wayne introduced Arness in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke, in 1955.[12] The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role.[13] Gunsmoke made Arness world-famous and would run for two decades, becoming the longest running drama series in U.S. television history by the end of its run in 1975. The series' season record was tied only in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order. Unlike the latter show, Gunsmoke featured its lead character in each of its twenty seasons; Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes, and was in the top 10 in the ratings for eleven more seasons, for a total of thirteen, including four consecutive seasons at number one.

After Gunsmoke ended, Arness performed in western-themed movies and television series, including How the West Was Won, and in five made-for-television Gunsmoke movies between 1987 and 1994. An exception was as a big-city police officer in a short-lived 1981-1982 series, McClain's Law, co-starring with Marshall Colt. His role as mountainman Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won made him into a cult figure in many European countries, where it became even more popular than in the United States, as the series has been re-broadcast many times across Europe.

James Arness: An Autobiography was released in September 2001, with a foreword by Burt Reynolds. Arness noted that he realized, "[I]f I was going to write a book about my life, I better do it now ... 'cause I'm not getting any younger."[14]




  • The Lone Ranger (1950, 1 episode as Deputy Bud Titus[17][18])
  • Lux Video Theatre, "The Chase" (1954)
  • Gunsmoke (1955–1975)
  • Front Row Center (1956)
  • The Red Skelton Chevy Special (1959)
  • The Chevrolet Golden Anniversary Show (1961)
  • A Salute to Television's 25th Anniversary (1972)
  • The Macahans (1976)
  • How The West Was Won (1977-1979 TV series)
  • McClain's Law (1981-1982 TV series)

This section's references:[19][20] The Farmer's Daughter (1947) Man From Texas (1947) Roses are Red (1947) - credited as "James Aurness" Battleground (1949) Wagon Master (1950) Sierra (1950) Two Lost Worlds (1950) Double Crossbones (1950) Stars In My Crown (1950) Wyoming Mail (1950) Cavalry Scout (1951) Belle le Grand (1951) Iron Man (1951) The Thing from Another World (1951) The People Against O'Hara (1951) Carbine Williams (1952) Hellgate (1952) The Girl in White (1952) Big Jim McLain (1952) Horizons West (1952) The Lone Hand (1953) Ride the Man Down (1953) Island in the Sky (1953) Veils of Bagdad (1953) Them! (1954) Hondo (1954) Her Twelve Men (1954) Flame of the Islands (1955) Many Rivers to Cross (1955) The Sea Chase (1955) Gun the Man Down (1956) The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) Alias Jesse James (1956), as Marshal Matt Dillon The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory (1987 TV movie), as Jim Bowie[15] Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987 TV movie) Red River (1988 TV movie)[16] Gunsmoke II: The Last Apache (1990 TV movie) Gunsmoke III: To the Last Man (1992 TV movie) Gunsmoke IV: The Long Ride (1993 TV movie) Gunsmoke V: One Man's Justice (1993 TV movie) [edit]Television The Lone Ranger (1950, 1 episode as Deputy Bud Titus[17][18]) Lux Video Theatre, "The Chase" (1954) Gunsmoke (1955–1975) Front Row Center (1956) The Red Skelton Chevy Special (1959) The Chevrolet Golden Anniversary Show (1961) A Salute to Television's 25th Anniversary (1972) The Macahans (1976) How The West Was Won (1977-1979 TV series) McClain's Law (1981-1982 TV series) This section's references:[19][20]

Personal lifeEdit

James and Rolf Arness 1959

Arness with his son, Rolf, in 1959.

Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960.[21] He adopted her son.[4] She died of a drug overdose[4] in 1976. Arness was married to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death although they did separate for a short time but got back together. When asked why he went back to her Arness said, "Women, can't live with them, can't live without them. Might as well suffer and live with them."[2] He had two sons, Rolf (born February 18, 1952) and Craig (died December 14, 2004).[22] His daughter Jenny Lee Aurness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975) committed suicide[23] by overdose.[4] Rolf Aurness became World Surfing Champion in 1970.[21] Craig Aurness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic.[24] Arness is survived by Rolf and by his adopted son.[4]

Despite his stoic character, according to Ben Bates, his Gunsmoke stunt double, Arness laughed "from his toes to the top of his head." Shooting on the Gunsmoke set was suspended because Arness got a case of the uncontrollable giggles.[25] James Arness disdained publicity and banned reporters from the Gunsmoke set. He was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. TV Guide dubbed him "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City."[26] Buck Taylor (Newly on Gunsmoke) thought so highly of Arness that he named his second son, Matthew, after Arness' character.[27]


Arness died of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.[1] He is interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.[28]


For his contributions to the television industry, Arness has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street. In 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Arness was inducted into the Santa Clarita Walk of Western Stars in 2006, and gave a related TV interview.[2]

On the 50th anniversary of television in 1989 in the United States, People magazine chose the top 25 television stars of all time. Arness was number 6.[29]

In 1996 TV Guide ranked him number 20 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.[30]

Arness was nominated for the following Emmy Awards:[22]

  • 1957: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Dramatic Series
  • 1958: Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic or Comedy Series
  • 1959: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series


  1. 1.0 1.1 "'Gunsmoke' star James Arness dies at 88". June 3, 2011. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Leon Worden "Newsmaker of the Week: TV Interview Transcript" April 21, 2006, Santa Clara Valley TV Accessed March 15, 2010
  3. Robert D. McFadden (June 3, 2011). "James Arness, Marshal on ‘Gunsmoke,’ Dies at 88". The New York Times. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Telegraph obituary
  5. "Ancestry of James Arness" Accessed 17 March 2010
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 James Arness, James E. Wise Jr. (2001) "James Arness: an Autobiography", ISBN 0-7864-1221-6, McFarland & Company Inc., Accessed March 15, 2010
  7. "Famous Methodists". Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  8. "James Arness". Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  9. "James Arness Medals,"
  10. "TV Guide, November 1961, page 8" Accessed March 1, 2012
  11. "How did James Arness first come to Hollywood?"
  12. "Gunsmoke". August 6, 2007. Retrieved June 4, 2011. 
  13. "James Arness is a blonde!"
  14. "James Arness wrote his autobiography in 2001,"
  15. "The Alamo Thirteen Days to Glory-Overview" New York Times, Accessed 17 March 2010
  16. "James Arness-Filmography" Accessed 17 March 2010
  17. "Lone Ranger Fan Club" Accessed 17 March 2010
  18. "Gunsmoke was not James Arness' first television western,"
  19. James Arness Filmography Accessed 16 March 2010
  20. "TV Guide-James Arness:Credits" Accessed 17 March 2010
  21. 21.0 21.1 Kampion, Drew (December 2000) "Rolf Aurness Biography". Surf Line, Accessed March 15, 2010
  22. 22.0 22.1 "TV Guide-James Arness:Biography" TV Guide Accessed 17 March 2010
  23. "Jenny Lee Aurness". Find A Grave, Accessed March 15, 2010
  24. Walker, David (December 16, 2004) "In Memoriam: Craig Aurness, 58". Photo District News, Accessed July 9, 2010.
  25. "In Gunsmoke, we never see Matt have a good belly laugh,"
  26. "The Greta Garbo of Dodge City,"
  27. "Buck Taylor's son Matthew"
  28. "James King "Matt Dillon" Arness (1923 - 2011) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved May 18, 2013. 
  29. People Magazine, 1989.
  30. TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596. ISBN 0-7607-5634-1. 

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