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

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.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvAs the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian on why he'll never bow to critics who habitually circle his work
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey outside Mo Nabbach’s M&M Hair Academy in west London before the haircut
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Keeper flaps at Nasri's late leveller, but Black Cat striker's two goals in 10 minutes had already done damage
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal