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James Arness Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (5) | Mini Bio (1) | Spouse (2) | Trade Mark (3) | Trivia (48) | Personal Quotes (4)

Overview (5)

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Died in Los Angeles, California, USA  (natural causes)
Birth NameJames King Aurness
Nicknames Jim
Jimmy
Height 6' 7" (2.01 m)

Mini Bio (1)

American leading man famed as the star of one of the longest-running shows in U.S. television history, Gunsmoke (1955). Born of Norwegian heritage (the family name, Aurness, had formerly 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, and Arness became something of a beach bum, living on the shore at San Onofre and spending his days surfing. He began taking his acting career more seriously when he began to receive fan mail following the release of the Young picture. He appeared in a production of "Candida" at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and married his leading lady, Virginia Chapman. She pressed him to study acting and to work harder in pursuit of a career, but Arness has been consistent in ascribing his success to luck. 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. His portrayal of stalwart marshal Dillon became an iconic figure in American television and the series, on the air for twenty seasons, is, as of 2008, the longest-running dramatic series in U.S. television history. Arness became world-famous and years later reprised the character in a series of TV movies. After the surprising cancellation of "Gunsmoke" in 1975, Arness jumped immediately into another successful (though much shorter-lived) Western project, a TV-movie-miniseries-series combination known as "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. Following the aforementioned "Gunsmoke" TV movies (the last in 1994, when Arness was 71), Arness basically retired. His marriage to Virginia Chapman ended in divorce in 1960. They had three children together, one of whom, Jenny Lee, died a suicide in 1975. Arness subsequently married Janet Surtrees in 1978.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jim Beaver <jumblejim@prodigy.net>

Spouse (2)

Janet Surtrees (16 December 1978 - 3 June 2011) (his death)
Virginia Chapman (12 February 1948 - 5 April 1963) (divorced) (3 children)

Trade Mark (3)

Commanding voice
Towering height
The role of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1955).

Trivia (48)

Honorary United States Marshal, "in recognition of his unique contribution to the image and traditions of the U.S. Marshal's Service".
Became U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1955) after John Wayne suggested Arness to play it. (Wayne himself, contrary to legend, was never offered the role.).
His daughter and actress, Jenny Lee Arness, committed suicide on Monday, May 12th, 1975.
According to an article on TV westerns in Time magazine (March 30, 1959), Arness stood 6' 7", weighed 235 lbs, and had chest-waist-hips measurements of 48-36-36. However, Arness usually gave his own height as 6' 6" in interviews.
Inducted (as a cast member of Gunsmoke (1955)) into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1981.
On Friday, June 20th, 2003, Arness was honored at Los Angeles City Hall by the mayor, the 15 City Council members and the City Attorney with a resolution honoring his life's work as an actor and 60-year resident of Los Angeles. The colorful resolution included a depiction of a U.S. Marshal's badge and a salute to his work as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1955) and its over-20-year duration as TV's longest-running drama series. It also recalled his heroism during World War II and thanked him for "leaving us with one of the most telling and realistic portraits ever created of the brave, tall man in the saddle who tames a western town as he searches for justice and peace." Arness called it "the most wonderful day in his life" and says the resolution is now framed and in a prominent place in his home. He received a standing ovation that morning.
Held the record for the longest continuous role portrayed by a single actor (20 years) on prime-time television (for Marshal Matt Dillon on the CBS western Gunsmoke (1955)), until Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers (1982) and Frasier (1993)) tied the record in 2004 (at 20 years).
Was rightly touted as the tallest leading man in Hollywood, although this title has since been taken by other stars, mainly basketball players turned "actors."
Member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity
Very, very often during his career, this huge actor was surrounded by co-stars standing on apple boxes or had to perform standing in a ditch just so he could be in a shot.
Father of Jenny Lee Arness (born May 23, 1950) and Rolf Aurness (born February 18, 1952), with Virginia Chapman. He also adopted her son from her first marriage, Craig (born 1946).
His status as a Republican disappointed Lady Bird Johnson, who was a fan of Gunsmoke (1955).
Attended Beloit College.
Did not attend the premiere of The Thing from Another World (1951) because he found his role as the Thing embarrassing. He often remarked that he felt his make up as "The Thing" made him look like a giant carrot.
Made four movies with his close friend John Wayne during the 1950s. He was also originally cast in Rock Hudson's role opposite Wayne in The Undefeated (1969). Wayne personally recommended Arness for the lead role in Gunsmoke (1955), and filmed an introduction for the first episode.
Confirmed in a 2001 interview that he is completely retired from acting because he no longer has the stamina for it.
He never played the lead male role in a theatrical movie, only on the various televised incarnations of "Gunsmoke". In his theatrical films, he usually acted along tall leading men such as John Wayne, Robert Ryan and Jeff Chandler.
Although they never married, he had a long-term relationship and lived with actress Thordis Brandt.
Fought in the US Army during World War II, taking part in the landing at Anzio, Italy, where he was wounded. He received the Bronze Star; the Purple Heart; the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze campaign stars; the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
He is survived by his wife, Janet Surtees of Brentwood, Los Angeles, California; son, Rolf Arness; stepson, Jim Surtees; six grandchildren, and a great grandchild. His adopted son, Craig, died in 2004 and his daughter Jenny died in 1975.
He was a longtime resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California with his second wife, Janet Surtees.
He married Virginia Chapman and adopted her son, Craig, by a previous marriage. They had daughter, Jenny Arness and son, Rolf Arness.
He attended public schools and graduated from West High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1942. He studied for a year at Beloit College in Wisconsin before he was drafted into the United States Army during World War II as an infantryman. During the invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944, his right leg was shattered by machine-gun fire, resulting in his losing part of his foot. He was hospitalized for a year and underwent surgeries to correct his leg, which left a limp. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his services. His injury made it difficult for him to walk for extended stretches. When shooting movies or TV shows, any scenes that required extensive walking would be shot early in the morning, before his feet and knees started giving out.
He was the son of Rolf Aurness and Ruth Duesler who divorced in the 1940s.
He was a lifelong supporter of the Republican party.
He had a lifelong affiliation with the Methodist church.
He was said to be somewhat self-conscious about his stature and quite happy when they took measures to obscure his towering height while filming "Gunsmoke".
He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Acting mentors and friend of Buck Taylor and Amy Stoch.
Best remembered by the public for his starring role as Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1955).
One of Harry Morgan's sons was the friend of one of his children. One of Morgan's sons spent the night at his ranch.
Was the only actor to appear in all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke (1955).
Despite the fact that he was friends with Robert Fuller and James Drury, he did not appear on any episodes of other series, because Warner Bros. would not lend its contract players to competitors.
His best friend and younger brother Peter Graves, died on March 14, 2010, just four days before his 84th birthday.
He passed away on June 3, 2011, just one week after he celebrated his 88th birthday.
His acting mentor was the late John Wayne.
Before he was a successful actor, he was a radio announcer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1968 he donated his 1,400-acre ranch in northern Los Angeles County to the Brandis Institute.
Began his career as a contract player for Batjac Productions--John Wayne's production company--in 1952.
Was a Boy Scout.
He was most widely known to be a very quiet and private man.
He and his brother Peter Graves never acted onscreen together; however, Graves did direct Arness in Gunsmoke: Which Dr. (1966).
After his last role Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice (1994), he retired from acting at age 71.
Had many times sailed with Buddy Ebsen.
His ex-wife, Virginia Chapman, died on July 29, 1977, at age 56.
Was in the 3rd Infantry Division at the time as Audie Murphy. Murphy was in the 15th Infantry Regiment and Arness was in the 7th Infantry Regiment. Both regiments landed at Sicily and Anzio. Arness was wounded at Anzio and sent back to the US for treatment and discharge.
Had to dye his naturally blond hair for the role of Matt Dillon, since dark hair was considered more masculine.
He and Kelsey Grammer both hold the record for playing the same character the longest (20 years). However, since the length of TV seasons was longer between 1955-75, it results in 635 episodes as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1955) for Arness and only 467 as Frasier Crane (on Cheers (1982) and Frasier (1993)) for Grammer.

Personal Quotes (4)

"If they were man and wife, it would make a lot of difference. The people upstairs decided it was better to leave the show as it was, which I totally agreed with." - on why his Gunsmoke character, Marshal Dillon, never married Miss Kitty.
I had the pleasure of knowing Ronald Reagan before he became Governor of California. He was a truly great human being and we usually spent our time together reminiscing about mutual friends. He will be missed by all who knew him and by a nation that will mourn with us. (2004)
I have met many other actors who were great also, but there was something about him that was so special He was just off in a class by himself somehow. It was a real privilege really to be around the man and to know him. I was with his company for three years, and it was just a special time. - On John Wayne
With Gunsmoke (1955), we had an outstanding quality of writing. The show had been on radio for three years, so they were able to fine-tune the characters. What made us different from other westerns was the fact that Gunsmoke wasn't just action and a lot of shooting; they were character-study shows. They're interesting to watch all these years later.

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