James Arness, the beloved 6-foot-7 Marshal Matt Dillon of TV’s iconic Western drama “Gunsmoke” (1955 to 1975) died Friday, June 3, 2011, at the age of 88.
Born James King Aurness on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Arness graduated from West High School in June 1942. He was the older brother of actor Peter Graves (1926-2010).
Arness worked in a number of menial jobs such as delivery, loading and unloading railway boxes, and logging in Idaho in pre-WWII years. He was called for the Army and began military service in Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in March 1943, serving as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. He was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy, and, after several surgeries, was honorably discharged in 1945.
James Arness was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, The European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
After returning to civilian life, he began his career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945 and soon appeared in his first film with Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947).
In 1955 he became Marshal Matt Dillon on the TV western drama, “Gunsmoke”-- a role reportedly turned down by John Wayne. The rest, as they say, is history. James Arness was a hero in real life and served as a role model and truly bigger-than-life hero as the gentle, polite and morally unshakable Marshal Matt Dillon for two decades. He is described by msnbc.com as creating, “…an indelible portrait of a quiet, heroic man with an unbending dedication to justice and the town he protected.”
James Arness is said to have disdained publicity and banned reporters from the Gunsmoke set. He has been described as a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famee, and in 1981 he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museumm in Oklahoma City., On the 50th anniversary of television in 1989, People Magazinee chose the top 25 television stars of all time, and Arness was No. 6. He was also nominated for several Emmyy award.
James Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960; and to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death. He fathered two sons, Rolf and Craig (who died in 2004). His daughter Jenny Lee died in 1975. Rolf Aurness became World Surfing Champion in 1970.
Arness is reported to have died of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles, California.
Sources: L.A. Times, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Arness);Today Television (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43269981/ns/today-entertainment ). His life and career are chronicled in James Arness—An Autobiography and his official website, http://www.jamesarness.com/biogphy.htm