Image of James Arness

James Arness

The star of one of the longest-running shows in U.S. television history, Gunsmoke (1955). Born of Norwegian heritage (the family name, Aurness (formerly had been Aursness) in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Rolf and Ruth Duesler Aurness. His father was a traveling salesman of medical supplies and his mother later became a newspaper columnist. James attended West High School in Minneapolis. Although he appeared in school plays, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. After high school, he attended one semester at Beloit College before receiving his draft notice in 1943. He entered the army and trained at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, before shipping out for North Africa. After landing at Casablanca, Arness joined the 3rd Infantry Division in time for the invasion of Anzio. Ten days after the invasion, Arness was severely wounded in the leg and foot by German machine-gun fire. His wounds, which plagued him the rest of his life, resulted in his medical discharge from the army. While recuperating in a Clinton, Iowa hospital, he was visited by his younger brother Peter (later to gain fame as actor Peter Graves), who suggested he take a radio course at the University of Minnesota. James did so, and a teacher recommended him for a job as an announcer at a Minneapolis radio station. Though seemingly headed for success in radio, he followed a boyhood friend's suggestion and went with the friend to Hollywood in hopes of getting work as film extras. He studied at the Bliss-Hayden Theatre School under actor Harry Hayden, and while appearing in a play there was spotted by agent Leon Lance. Lance got the actor a role as Loretta Young's brother in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). The director of that film, H.C. Potter, recommended that he drop the "u" from his last name and soon thereafter the actor was officially known as James Arness. Little work followed this break,  He appeared in a production of "Candida", and married his leading lady, Virginia Chapman. He began to get small roles with frequency, often, due to his size, villainous characters. Most notable among these was that of the space alien in The Thing from Another World (1951). While playing a Greek warrior in a play, Arness was spotted by agent Charles K. Feldman, who represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who put the self-described 6' 6" actor under personal contract. Arness played several roles over the next few years for and with Wayne, whom he considered a mentor. In 1955, Wayne recommended Arness for the lead role of Matt Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke (1955). (Contrary to urban legend, Wayne himself was never offered the role.) Arness at first declined, thinking a TV series could derail his growing film career, but Wayne argued for the show, and Arness accepted. After the cancellation of "Gunsmoke" in 1975, Arness took on another successful Western project, "How The West Was Won." A brief modern police drama, McClain's Law (1981), followed, and Arness played his mentor John Wayne's role in Red River (1988), a remake of the Wayne classic.

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May 26, 1923 In Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Movie/TV Credits:
First Appeared:
In the series Front Row Center 1945-03-25
Latest Project:
Movie Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice 1994-02-10
Known For
Poster of Them!
Poster of Lux Video Theatre
Poster of The Ed Sullivan Show
Poster of Front Row Center
Movie Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice Matt Dillon 1994-02-10
Movie Gunsmoke: The Long Ride Matt Dillon 1993-05-08
Movie Gunsmoke: To the Last Man Matt Dillon 1992-01-10
Movie Gunsmoke: The Last Apache Matt Dillon 1990-03-17
Movie John Wayne Standing Tall Himself 1989-03-01
Movie Red River Thomas Dunson 1988-04-10
Movie Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge Matt Dillon 1987-09-27
Movie The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory Jim Bowie 1987-11-11
Series McClain's Law Det. Jim McClain 1981-11-20
Series How the West Was Won Zeb Macahan 1977-02-06
Movie The Macahan's Zeb 1976-01-19
Movie Alias Jesse James Marshal Matt Dillon (uncredited) 1959-03-20
Movie Gun the Man Down Rem Anderson 1956-11-15
Movie The First Traveling Saleslady Joel Kingdom 1956-08-01
Series The Johnny Carson Show Unknown 1955-06-30
Movie Many Rivers to Cross Esau Hamilton 1955-02-04
Movie The Sea Chase Schlieter 1955-06-04
Series Gunsmoke Marshal Matt Dillon 1955-09-10
Movie Flame of the Islands Kelly Rand 1955-12-04
Movie Them! FBI Agent Robert Graham 1954-06-16
Movie Her Twelve Men Ralph Munsey 1954-08-11
Movie Island in the Sky Mac McMullen 1953-09-05
Movie The Lone Hand Gus Varden 1953-06-26
Movie The Veils of Bagdad Targut 1953-10-06
Movie Hondo Lennie 1953-11-25
Movie Carbine Williams Leon Williams 1952-05-01
Movie The Girl in White Matt 1952-05-23
Movie Big Jim McLain Mal Baxter 1952-08-30
Movie Horizons West Tiny McGilligan 1952-10-11
Movie Hellgate George Redfield 1952-09-04
Movie The Thing from Another World 'The Thing' 1951-04-05
Movie Cavalry Scout Barth 1951-05-13
Movie Two Lost Worlds Kirk Hamilton 1951-01-05
Movie Iron Man Alex Mallick (as Jim Arness) 1951-08-18
Movie The People Against O'Hara John Fordman 'Johnny' O'Hara 1951-09-01
Movie Sierra Little Sam 1950-06-01
Movie Wagon Master Floyd Clegg 1950-04-22
Series Lux Video Theatre Unknown 1950-10-02
Movie Wyoming Mail Russell 1950-10-10
Movie Battleground Garby 1949-11-09
Movie Man from Texas (uncredited) 1948-03-06
Series The Ed Sullivan Show Unknown 1948-06-20
Movie Roses Are Red Ray (as James Aurness) 1947-11-10
Movie The Farmer's Daughter Peter Holstrom (as James Aurness) 1947-01-01
Series Front Row Center Unknown 1945-03-25