Arness took on the role of Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon at the urging of John Wayne, who was originally wooed for the part
I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends. … I wanted to take this time to thank all of you for the many years of being a fan of Gunsmoke, The Thing, How the West Was Won and all the other fun projects I was lucky enough to have been allowed to be a part of. I had the privilege of working with so many great actors over the years.”
Having notched 20 seasons, Gunsmoke shares with the original Law & Order the record for TV’s longest-running drama series, though the Western served up 635 episodes to the NBC procedural’s 456. Similarly, Arness’ two-decade run as Dillon is only matched by Kelsey Grammer’s as Frasier Crane (across Cheers and its spin-off).
Cool trivia: Arness took on the role of Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon at the urging of John Wayne, who was originally wooed for the part. “You’re too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don’t want a big lug like you towering over us,” the 6-foot-6 Arness once related Wayne telling him. “Make your mark in television.” And make his mark he did.
Twice married, Arness is survived by his wife of 33 years, Janet Surtees, two sons and six grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brother, Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), who passed away in March 2010.
As the poker-faced, taciturn marshal of Dodge City who works to preserve law and order on the western frontier in the 1870s, Arness, in medium-close shots, often had to perform standing in a hole, or else other actors stood on boxes so their faces could be in frame. His height was also a factor in his casting in the title role of The Thing from Another World (1951), also known as The Thing, which gave impetus to his career.
Arness himself found the part of the alien plant creature that feeds on human blood embarrassing, remarking that his make-up “made me look like a giant carrot”. In another sci-fi, Them! (1954), he played it straight as an FBI agent on the trail of huge mutant atomic ants, good practice for his later dealings with human beasts in Gunsmoke.
He was born James King Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, a businessman, was of Norwegian origin, his mother, a journalist, had German ancestry. His younger brother was the actor Peter Graves, who died last year. After high school he had various jobs, and for a time was a lumberjack.
When the US entered the second world war, he wanted to become a navy pilot, but his height disqualified him. He joined the army instead, and was awarded a Purple Heart after suffering serious injuries to his right leg during the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy. His wounds continued to bother him, and prevented him from mounting a horse, quite a handicap for a western hero. For almost a year he was in hospital, where nurses suggested that, with his sonorous voice, he ought to be in radio. Taking their advice, Arness became an announcer and disc jockey at a Minneapolis radio station, before deciding to try his luck in Hollywood.
He made his screen debut, billed as James Aurness, simulating a Swedish accent, as one of Loretta Young’s three beefy brothers in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). He then appeared as a soldier in William Wellman’s Battleground (1949), a cowboy in John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), a boxer in Iron Man (1951), the title role in The People Against O’Hara (1951), as an innocent accused of murder defended by Spencer Tracy, and one of James Stewart’s brothers in Carbine Williams (1952).
Big Jim McLain (1952) was the first of four films Arness made with his close buddy John Wayne, whose rightwing ideology he shared. In this simplistic McCarthyite movie, he and Wayne played two US House Un-American Activities Committee investigators out to break up a ring of commie agitators in Hawaii. Arness’s character, in particular, sees red every time he sees a “red” because, as Wayne’s voiceover explains: “My partner hates these people. They shot at him in Korea.”
His other roles supporting Wayne were as an Indian Scout in Hondo (1953), a pilot in Island in the Sky (1953) and a German sailor in The Sea Chase (1955). It was Wayne who suggested Arness for Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Afraid of being typecast, Arness initially rejected it. “Go ahead and take it, Jim,” Wayne urged him. “You’re too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don’t want a big lug like you towering over us. Make your mark in television.”