James Arness: Actor who starred for 20 years as Marshal Matt Dillon in 'Gunsmoke'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For 20 years, and some 635 episodes, James Arness starred as Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, still the longest run of any star in American prime-time television drama. In the era when westerns ruled the airwaves, Gunsmoke was the most popular of them all. It débuted in 1955, and from 1957-61 was the top-rated show in the country – and, retitled Gun Law, was popular in the UK as well. As the genre declined Gunsmoke thrived, finally ending in 1975, having outlasted all its competition and setting longevity records that still stand.

The key was the towering presence of Arness, whose 6ft 7in frame and craggy face anchored but never dominated the show. Although each episode opened with Arness winning a shoot-out shown first from Dillon's point of view, the show was conceived as "adult", eschewing shoot-outs in favour of personal drama. The ensemble cast, including Dennis Weaver as Matt's lame deputy Chester, Amanda Blake as the saloon-keeper Kitty and Milburn Stone as Doc, all played off Arness. His features were as chiselled as William S Hart, his silences as strong as Gary Cooper's. He was the perfect translation of the cinema's western hero to the smaller screen.

In real life, Arness shared much of the quiet modesty of his most famous role. He was born James King Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1923. His father's family was Norwegian, originally called Aursnes, but the name had been simplified when they came to the US. A self-described poor student, more interested in a series of outdoor jobs, he nevertheless graduated from high school in 1942 and attended Beloit College. He wanted to enlist in the Army Air Corps but his height, coupled with bad vision, made that impossible, and he was drafted into the infantry. He was severely wounded at the beachhead at Anzio in 1944, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and enduring multiple operations before being discharged with a disability pension.

He worked at a series of jobs, including that of disc jockey, in Minnesota, before he and a friend hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in acting classes and was signed by Dore Schary, who billed him as Arness in his 1947 screen debut, playing Loretta Young's brother in The Farmer's Daughter. He played a series of small parts, sometimes unbilled, including a memorable turn as the nastiest of the evil Cleggs in John Ford's Wagonmaster (1950). He was, however, unrecognisable in his biggest role, as the eponymous Thing (1951); he would also play a monster in Them (1954), which he described as looking like "a giant carrot". Arness was busy in small roles, but his size worked against him, as few stars liked supporting players towering over them. Arness's younger brother would have his own career as Peter Graves, playing smoother characters, most famously in Mission Impossible, as well as showing his hand at deadpan comedy in Airplane.

Among his dozens of jobs, in 1952 Arness played in Hellgate, directed by Charles Marquis Warren, and co-starred with John Wayne as red-busting FBI agents in Big Jim McClain. He was under contract to Wayne's company, and they made three more pictures together in the next three years, becoming close friends.

Gunsmoke was already a successful radio programme, conceived by the CBS president William Paley as a"hard-boiled western" with MattDillon as a cowboy version of Phillip Marlowe. Radio's Dillon, William Conrad, was too portly for the TV adaptation, but Warren was producing and directing and Wayne recommended Arness, and actually filmed an introduction to the opening episode introducing his friend.

The adult themes carried over from radio, with Kitty actually acknowledged as a prostitute, and Doc ascerbic and sometimes drunk. But as the showbecame more popular the characters acquired more respectability. The cast remained remarkably stable, though Weaver eventually left to be replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus, and a young Burt Reynolds had a four-year run as a mixed-race blacksmith, Quint. Reynolds wrote an introduction toArness's biography, which was published in 2001.

In 1956, Arness played one of a series of cameos by TV lawmen in the Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James, and the following year Gunsmoke went to No 1 in the ratings. In 1967, CBS announced its cancellation, but a popular outcry (and, legend has it, Paley's wife) intervened. With the advent of colour, Gunsmoke was back to No 2 by 1969, and even when it was finally cancelled, in 1975, it was still rated among the top 30 programmes.

Arness starred in the TV mini-series remake of How The West Was Won (1977), and in the series that followed, for which he was arguably better known outside the US. He played a detective coming out of retirement in the short-lived McClain's Law (1981-82) and starred in television remakes of two classic westerns, playing Jim Bowie in The Alamo (1987) and taking the John Wayne role in Red River (1988). But he had bigger success with a TV revival of Gunsmoke, entitled Return To Dodge (1988), which spawned four sequels between 1990 and 1993.

Arness lived quietly, away from the Hollywood buzz, and died at home in Los Angeles. His first marriage, to Virginia Chapman, had ended in divorce; he adopted her son Craig, who, along with his daughter, predeceased him, as did Peter Graves. Their other son, Rolf Aurness, was a world surfing champion.

Michael Carlson

James King Auness (James Arness), actor: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 26 May 1923; married firstly Virginia Chapman (marriage dissolved; one daughter, deceased, one stepson, deceased, and one son), secondly Janet Surtees; died Los Angeles 3 June 2011.