James Arness

James Arness


Also Known As
Jim Arness, James King Aurness, James Aurness
Birth Place
Minneapolis, Minnesota
May 26, 1923
June 03, 2011


Arguably one of the most famous television performers of the 1950s through the 1970s, James Arness played the law-abiding Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975), the longest-running drama in television history. Prior to the show's launch, Arness was a World War II hero-turned-actor who struggled to find substantive roles, largely due to his towering height; the best of these ...

Family & Companions

Virginia Chapman
Married on February 12, 1948; divorced in 1960; attempted suicide twice.
Janet Surtees
Married in 1978; divorced.


"James Arness: An Autobiography"
James Arness with James E. Wise Jr., McFarland (2001)


"I remember asking myself why doesn't he ever allow himself to be on the other end of the pole? Why not let Matt be wrong once? But Jim would never hear of it." --Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty on "Gunsmoke"


Arguably one of the most famous television performers of the 1950s through the 1970s, James Arness played the law-abiding Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975), the longest-running drama in television history. Prior to the show's launch, Arness was a World War II hero-turned-actor who struggled to find substantive roles, largely due to his towering height; the best of these was as the title monster in "The Thing from Another World" (1951). John Wayne took an interest in Arness and helped him to land the role on "Gunsmoke," which would dominate the majority of his career for 20 years. After its cancellation, the actor appeared in several subsequent Western-themed series, but returned to Dodge City as Dillon for a string of reunion TV movies in the early 1990s. The enduring popularity of "Gunsmoke" in reruns assured Arness that he would continue to ride the range in viewers' imaginations forever.

Born James King Aurness in Minneapolis, MN on May 26, 1923, he was the eldest son of medical supply salesman Rolf Aurness (whose original surname, Aursnes, was changed after immigrating to the United States from Norway) and Ruth Duesler, a newspaper columnist. His younger brother would later assume a family name from his mother's side and find fame as Peter Graves, the star of "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1967-1973) and numerous films like "Airplane" (1980). Arness took little interest in formal education, having set his sights on a career at sea, thereby not surprisingly struggling through high school before graduating in 1942. He labored at various jobs before trying his hand at college, but made it through through only one semester at Beloit College before receiving his draft notice. Training at Georgia's Camp Wheeler preceded his deployment to North Africa as part of the 3rd Infantry Division. There, he participated in the invasion of Anzio, and was severely wounded in action, which earned him the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other medals. However, the injuries he suffered to his leg and foot would plague him for the rest of his life, and at times, require him to shoot any scenes that required him to walk for extended periods at the beginning of the day.

After several surgeries, he was honorably discharged and sent to recuperate in a stateside hospital in Iowa. His brother visited him there and suggested that he might look into radio announcing as a post-military career choice. After taking a radio course at the University of Minnesota, he was recommended for a job at a local station. However, a friend suggested that he might find even greater success if he tried his hand at acting, so he soon relocated to Los Angeles. After studying with actor Harry Hayden, he was discovered by an agent and given the role of Loretta Young's brother in "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947), which earned an Academy Award for the actress. Minor roles in major films like "Battleground" (1949), where he was first billed as "James Arness," and John Ford's "Wagonmaster" (1950) followed, but by 1950, his career appeared to have stalled. He spent much of his time living on the beach and surfing at San Onofre, but after meeting and marrying actress Virginia Chapman, his co-star in a production of "Candide," he decided to dig back into the work and seek out better roles.

Due to his height – Arness was 6' 7" – those were often hard to come by, leaving him frequently cast in parts that were little more than background players. One of these roles, however, would be part of a classic film, Howard Hawks' science fiction chiller "The Thing from Another World" (1951). Arness played the title role, an ambulatory and homicidal plant creature that threatens the fast-talking crew of an Antarctic military base. Though covered in makeup and without a single line, Arness' imposing figure did much to provide the film with the necessary scares, but the role did little to advance his career. It took the intervention of actor John Wayne to give Arness the boost he needed. Spotted in a play by Wayne's famous agent, Charles K. Feldman, he was introduced to Wayne, who signed him to a contract at his production company, BatJac. He also gave Arness prominent roles in three of his motion pictures: the Red-baiting action film "Big Jim McLain" (1952), an Army Indian scout in the John Farrow Western "Hondo" (1953), and as a German sailor in "The Sea Chase" (1955). The exposure from the Duke helped. By 1954, Arness was landing more substantive parts. Among them was a lead in another science fiction classic, 1954's "Them!" which pitted him against ants made king-sized by radiation.

Arness' movie career appeared to be moving forward with some rapidity when he was offered the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on a television adaptation of the venerable radio program, "Gunsmoke." Wayne himself suggested Arness for the role after allegedly turning it down (though some sources deny this), but the actor was wary about signing on to a series, fearing that it would put a crimp in his film career. He eventually relented, and Wayne himself introduced the series for its debut on Sept. 10, 1955. At the time, Western TV shows were largely considered a genre for younger viewers, as evidenced by programs like "The Lone Ranger" (ABC, 1949-1957). But "Gunsmoke" was decidedly adult and dramatic in tone; the violence, though tame by modern standards, was real, and the stories revolved more around the day-to-day challenges of living in Dodge City in 1873 than any cowboys-and-Indians adventure. Making sense of it all was Marshal Matt Dillon, a largely taciturn man who believed in the law and fought fair, yet was not afraid to use his gun if necessary, as the famous opening credits sequence showed. Arness's height and grave demeanor helped to sell the idea that Dillon meant business about keeping the peace in this small Kansas town.

"Gunsmoke" was slow to build an audience, but by 1957, it had made its way into the Top 10, and would eventually take the No. 1 spot in the ratings for four solid years. It also launched a wave of Westerns for adults that took over the airwaves in the late 1950s and early 1960s, though none could match the program for sheer viewer loyalty. As for Arness, he was front and center in one of the most popular shows on television, with his fear about a failed movie career largely coming true. He made just two films during its entire network run; both were Westerns, and in one – the 1959 Bob Hope comedy "Alias Jesse James" – he played Matt Dillon. The work and exposure from countless "Gunsmoke" tie-in products like comics, novels and games certainly quelled his concerns. After suffering a decline in viewership in the late 1960s, "Gunsmoke" was on the verge of cancellation, but made a remarkable comeback in the early 1970s until its abrupt cancellation in 1976. When it left the airwaves, it was the longest-running primetime dramatic series in the history of television, and the last Western of its kind on television for many years. For his efforts, Arness was nominated for an Emmy three times, and shared in its considerable profits, having produced 32 of its episodes.

Arness returned to television almost immediately in another Western-themed series. "How the West Was Won" (ABC, 1978-79) began as a TV movie called "The Macahans" (ABC, 1976), about a mountain man (Arness) who leads his late brother's family West to establish a new life there. Arness' presence assured a follow-up, which began as an Emmy-nominated miniseries (ABC, 1977) before launching into a full-blown weekly drama on the same network. Though not a major hit with American audiences, the show had lasting appeal in Europe, where it was shown numerous times in the decades that followed. Arness made one final stab at a weekly series with "McClain's Law" (NBC, 1981-82) which cast him as a retired cop who returns to the force to show a new group of officers the right way to deal with lawbreakers, i.e., though old-fashioned rough-ups. Changing viewership tastes, combined with Arness' long association with Westerns, spelled a quick demise.

Arness returned to television sporadically in the years after "McClain," though when he did, it was in typically iconic roles. He was Jim Bowie in "The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory" (NBC, 1987), an Emmy-nominated TV movie about the ill-fated standoff with the Mexican army, and in 1988, starred in a TV remake (CBS) of "Red River" (1948), which cast him in one of John Wayne's most memorable roles. But the nostalgia over "Gunsmoke" never faded from the minds of TV audiences, and in 1987, he reprised the role in five CBS made-for-TV movies: "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge City" (1987), "Gunsmoke: The Last Apache" (1990), "Gunsmoke: To the Last Man" (1992), "Gunsmoke: The Long Ride" (1993) and "Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice" (1994). The reunion movies deviated little from the original series, although many viewers who believed that the long-celibate Dillon should end up with Amanda Blake's Miss Kitty were dismayed to see in "The Last Apache" that Dillon had indeed been with another woman: guest star Michael Learned in a 1973 episode which was used to create a long-last daughter (Amy Stock-Poynton) in the subsequent films.

Arness retired from acting in 2001, citing that he no longer possessed the stamina to shoulder the rigors of the work. He spent his time supporting charities and responding to the steady flow of fan mail for his work on "Gunsmoke," which remained popular in reruns nearly a half-century after its debut. In 2003, the Los Angeles city mayor at a City Hall ceremony celebrated his career and war heroism with a resolution. Arness returned to the news under sad circumstances when his younger brother, Peter Graves, died suddenly after a family luncheon on March 14, 2010. A little over a year later, Arness passed away in his sleep at his Brentwood home on June 3, 2011. He was 88 years old.



Cast (Feature Film)

Gunsmoke V: One Man's Justice (1994)
Matt Dillon
Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (1993)
Matt Dillon
Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992)
Matt Dillon
Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990)
Matt Dillon
Red River (1988)
The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory (1987)
Gunsmoke: Return To Dodge City (1987)
The Macahans (1976)
Alias Jesse James (1959)
Gun the Man Down (1956)
Rem Anderson
The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)
Joel Kingdon
Flame of the Islands (1956)
Kelly Rand
Many Rivers to Cross (1955)
Esau Hamilton
The Sea Chase (1955)
Her Twelve Men (1954)
Ralph Munsey
Hondo (1954)
Them! (1954)
Robert Graham
The Veils of Bagdad (1953)
Island in the Sky (1953)
The Lone Hand (1953)
Gus Varden
Big Jim McLain (1952)
Mal Baxter
Hellgate (1952)
The Girl in White (1952)
Carbine Williams (1952)
Leon Williams
Horizons West (1952)
Tiny McGilligan
The People Against O'Hara (1951)
Johnny O'Hara
Cavalry Scout (1951)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
"The Thing"
Iron Man (1951)
Belle Le Grand (1951)
Wagon Master (1950)
Floyd Clegg
Wyoming Mail (1950)
Stars in My Crown (1950)
Rufe Isbell
Two Lost Worlds (1950)
Kirk Hamilton
Sierra (1950)
Little Sam [Coulter]
Battleground (1949)
The Farmer's Daughter (1947)
Roses Are Red (1947)

Producer (Feature Film)

Gunsmoke V: One Man's Justice (1994)
Executive Producer
Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (1993)
Executive Producer

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992)
Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990)

Cast (Special)

John Wayne Standing Tall (1989)
A Salute to Television's 25th Anniversary (1972)
The Red Skelton Chevy Special (1959)

Life Events


First film as James Arness, "Roses Are Red"


Made feature acting debut in "The Farmer's Daughter" (billed as James Aurness)


Portrayed GI Garby in William Wellman's WWII epic "Battleground"


Had supporting role in John Ford's "Wagon Master"


Played title role in "The Thing/The Thing from Another World"


First film with John Wayne, Edward Ludwig's "Big Jim McClain"


Re-teamed with Wayne for Wellman's "Island in the Sky" and John Farrow's "Hondo"


Acted in the sci-fi feature "Them!"


Final film with Wayne, John Farrow's "The Sea Chase"


Portrayed Marshall Matt Dillon in the long-running CBS series "Gunsmoke"


Second film with Ludwig, "Flame of the Islands"


Played a bank robber who hunts down the companions that abandoned him in "Gun the Man Down"


Made a cameo as Matt Dillon in "Alias Jesse James"


Portrayed Zeb Macahan in the ABC movie "The Macahans"


Reprised Zeb Macahan role in ABC miniseries "How the West Was Won"


Again played Zeb Macahan in the ABC series "How the West Was Won"


Starred as Detective Jim McClain in the NBC series "McClain's Law"


Played Jim Bowie in the NBC movie "The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory"


Returned to the role of Marshall Dillon in the first of five CBS-TV movies, "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge"


Acted in the CBS remake of Howard Hawks' 1948 movie "Red River"; portrayed the John Wayne role of Tom Dunson


Executive produced and starred as Matt Dillon in the CBS movie "Gunsmoke: The Long Ride"


Executive produced and starred as Matt Dillon in the CBS movie "Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice"

Photo Collections

Them! - Lobby Cards
Here are a few Lobby Cards from Them! (1954). Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.


Movie Clip

People Against O'Hara, The (1951) -- (Movie Clip) We Plead Not Guilty First court appearance for Spencer Tracy as recovering-alcoholic and ex-prosecutor Curtayne, defending accused killer and family friend Johnny (James Arness), John Hodiak the prosecutor, Henry O’Neill the judge, then a jail visit, angered because Johnny isn’t telling him everything, in The People Against O’Hara, 1951.
Sea Chase, The (1955) -- (Movie Clip) Against The New Regime Days before their countries are expected to go to war, British officer Napier (David Farrar) brings his German fiancee' Elsa (Lana Turner) to meet his old family friend, also-German Captain Ehrlich (John Wayne), a former naval officer who refused to become a Nazi, on his freighter docked at Sydney, in The Sea Chase, 1955.
Sea Chase, The (1955) -- (Movie Clip) Muster All Hands Departing Sydney, Australia, just after the declaration of WWII, anti-Nazi German freighter captain Ehrlich (John Wayne) instructs his crew on avoiding British patrols, then tells Elsa (Lana Turner), an old acquaintance and Nazi spy whom he's been ordered to transport, to stay out of sight, in The Sea Chase, 1955.
Sea Chase, The (1953) -- (Movie Clip) No Daydreaming Moored off a South Pacific island to collect wood to fuel their way to Chile, German steamer officers Kirchner and Schmidt (Lyle Bettger, John Qualen) are interrupted by captain Ehrlich (John Wayne), who has special instructions regarding their sexy spy passenger (Lana Turner), who is in turn impressed by his consideration for old soldier Schmidt (Paul Fix), in The Sea Chase, 1955.
Them! (1954) -- (Movie Clip) -- The Queen's Chamber Scientist Pat (Joan Weldon) joins cop Ben (James Whitmore) and FBI man Bob (James Arness) on a foray into the giant ants' nest, armed with flame-throwers, in the original Them!, 1954.
Alias Jesse James (1959) -- (Movie Clip) Bret Maverick, Etc. Irritating citizen Queasley (Will Wright), Bob Hope and bride Rhonda Fleming, in a shootout cameo sequence, first James Garner in Maverick mode, then Ward Bond, James Arness, Roy Rogers, Fess Parker, Gary Cooper, Jay Silverheels and Bing Crosby, near the end of Alias Jesse James, 1959.
Them! (1954) -- (Movie Clip) -- Genetically It's Certainly Possible FBI man Graham (James Arness) and New Mexico cop Peterson brief the doctors Medford (Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon as his daughter), who then interview the traumatized "Ellinson Girl" (Sandy Descher), who produces a title for the movie when exposed to acid from ants in the original Them!, 1954.
Them! (1954) -- (Movie Clip) -- Demonstration Of Power From the action in New Mexico to a top-level conference in Washington, Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) delivers the big science content about ants to the assembled authorities in the original Them!, 1954, from a story by George Worthing Yates.
Carbine Williams (1952) -- (Movie Clip) The First Day Is The Worst Prominent North Carolina landowner Claude Williams (Carl Benton Reid) delivers his black-sheep eldest son "Marsh" (James Stewart) to prison, warden Wendell Corey narrating and brother James Arness visiting, in the life-story of the famous gun designer, Carbine Williams, 1952.
Farmer's Daughter, The -- (Movie Clip) This Power and Right Congressman Morley (Joseph Cotten) has tips on sincerity for candidate Katie (Loretta Young) and her brothers (featuring James Arness as Peter) in The Farmer's Daughter, 1947.
John Carpenter: Guest Programmer -- (Movie Promo) October 2011 TCM Promo for the Wednesday, October 5th visit from Guest Programmer, innovative director John Carpenter, appearing with Robert Osborne, starting at 8pm ET.


Big Jim McLain - (Original Trailer) An investigator (John Wayne) for the House Un-American Activities Committee takes on Communists in Hawaii in Big Jim McLain (1952).
Her Twelve Men - (Original Trailer) A dedicated teacher turns around the troublesome students at a boy's school in Her Twelve Men (1954) starring Greer Garson.
Sea Chase, The - (Original Trailer) A German freighter captain (John Wayne) tries to elude the British in the early days of World War II in The Sea Chase (1955).
Stars in My Crown - (Original Trailer) A parson (Joel McCrea) uses six-guns and the Bible to bring peace to a Tennessee town in Stars in My Crown (1950).
Island in the Sky -- (Original Trailer) it's a saga of survival as a WWII transport plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness in William Wellman's Island in the Sky (1953).
Many Rivers to Cross - (Original Trailer) Eleanor Parker pursues trapper Robert Taylor through 18th Century Kentucky in the frontier comedy Many Rivers To Cross (1955).
Farmer's Daughter, The -- (Re-issue Trailer) When she goes to work for a congressman, a Minnesota farm girl takes Washington by storm in The Farmer's Daughter (1947) starring Loretta Young.
First Traveling Saleslady, The - (Original Trailer) The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) is a comedy starring Ginger Rogers, Carol Channing and the young Clint Eastwood.
Thing from Another World, The - (Original Trailer) The crew of a remote Arctic base fights off a murderous monster from outer space in The Thing from Another World (1951).


Rolf C Aurness
Ruth Aurness
Peter Graves
Actor. Born on March 18, 1925.
Craig Aurness
Mother, Virginia Chapman.
Jenny Lee Aurness
Mother, Virginia Chapman; died of a drug overdose in 1975.
Rolf Aurness
Mother, Virginia Chapman.


Virginia Chapman
Married on February 12, 1948; divorced in 1960; attempted suicide twice.
Janet Surtees
Married in 1978; divorced.


"James Arness: An Autobiography"
James Arness with James E. Wise Jr., McFarland (2001)


"I remember asking myself why doesn't he ever allow himself to be on the other end of the pole? Why not let Matt be wrong once? But Jim would never hear of it." --Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty on "Gunsmoke"