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James Arness: 1923 - 2011

3 June 2011 10:21 AM, PDT | IMDb News

James Arness, the lanky actor best remembered for his portrayal of the iconic Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running American TV series "Gunsmoke", passed away on Friday of natural causes. He was 88.

He was born James King Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the eldest son of Ruth and Rolf Aurness, older brother to Peter, who later changed his name and gained fame as actor Peter Graves. James spent his formative years in Minneapolis before heading to university at Beloit College, dropping out of classes there when he received his draft notice in 1943. Having dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot, he was disappointed to discover that his 6'7" height disqualified him from aviation. Instead, he served in the Army as an infantry rifleman, but his Army career ended with a medical discharge after being seriously wounded during combat in Anzio, Italy, injuries which earned him a Purple Heart. While recovering, he was visited by his brother Peter, who encouraged him to enroll in the University of Minnesota's radio training course. James took his brother's advice, and a career as a Minneaoplis radio announcer followed.

After spending time as a successful disc jockey, James and a friend headed to Hollywood to try their luck at acting. James won a contract with RKO pictures, where he made his first onscreen appearance as Loretta Young's brother in 1947's The Farmer's Daughter. It was at this time that the studio officially changed his surname to "Arness". He continued to act in local theater productions, and during his time in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Candida he met and married his leading lady, Virginia Chapman. The couple would have three children, Rolf, Jenny and Craig, and remained married until 1960, when they divorced. Simultaneously, his film career was slowly gaining momentum, his height winning him parts in science fiction classics The Thing from Another World and Them!

It was his role in another play that caught the attention of Charles K. Feldman, who introduced Arness to his client John Wayne. Wayne, impressed with the young man, signed him to a three year contact that would determine the direction of the rest of Arness's career. When, in 1955, Wayne suggested him for the lead in a new television show, Arness was hesitant to accept the role, concerned that an appearance on TV might hinder his film career. He reluctantly took the role, however, and would play Marshal Matt Dillon, who honorably maintained law and order in Dodge City on "Gunsmoke" for the next twenty years until the show's cancellation in 1975. The show held the record for the longest-running American television series until 2010, when it was surpassed by The Simpsons. After the cancellation of "Gunsmoke", Arness returned to TV in another western "How the West Was Won", as a detective in "McClain's Law", and appeared in TV movies "The Alamo" and "Red River". He reprised the role of Marshall Dillon in four TV movies between 1990 and 1994, before officially retiring from acting in 2001.

He is survived by his wife Janet Surtrees, who he married in 1978, and his son Rolf Aurness. He was preceded in death by his parents, his daughter Jenny Lee Arness in 1975, his son Craig Aurness in 2004, and his brother Peter Graves in 2010. »

- Heather Campbell

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