Fondly remembered as the tall and heroic Marshal Matt Dillon from the 1950s' TV western series Gunsmoke
Published 12/06/2011 | 05:00
James Arness, who died on June 3 aged 88, played Matt Dillon, the square-jawed, heroic marshal of Dodge City in Gunsmoke, which became one of America's most durable television series.
Critics hailed the show -- which ran from 1955 to 1975 and was known in Britain as Gun Law -- as "the grimy, gritty version of the reality of frontier life" and as "television's first adult Western". One summed up Arness's performance as Dillon with the words: "[His] slab-like face and massive outline merges all our memories of frontier lawmen. Dillon is the Virginian, Wyatt Earp, Gary Cooper, Shane and John Wayne lumped into a single, definitive, towering good guy."
A strong supporting cast included Milburn Stone as Doc, Amanda Blake as the saloon keeper and Dennis Weaver as Dillon's gullible deputy Chester Goode. From 1962 to 1965 a youthful Burt Reynolds was recruited to play Quint, the lusty, honest Dodge City blacksmith.
Arness is said to have owed his role in the show to John Wayne, with whom he struck up what would become a lifelong friendship when they both starred in the film Big Jim McLain (1952), about two investigators trying to track down communist agitators in post-war Hawaii.
There is some dispute as to whether Wayne himself was offered the part of Matt Dillon, only to turn it down. But certainly he encouraged Arness to take the role; and when the first episode of Gunsmoke was broadcast in 1955, "the Duke" introduced it with the words: "Good evening. My name's Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before; I hope so. I've been kicking around Hollywood a long time. . . [Gunsmoke is] honest, it's adult, it's realistic.
"When I first heard about the show, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness. He's a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you, but I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star."
At 6ft 7in tall, Arness had not always found it easy to secure mainstream parts because he dwarfed the other players -- he once declared: "When you're that tall, you live on a lonely summit." But his towering frame was no disadvantage as the guardian of law and order in Dodge City, Kansas, on the western frontier in the 1870s.
The programme was an immediate success. By 1966-67, however, the ratings had declined, and it looked as though the series might have run its course; but when there was talk of its being axed, such were the howls of protest from viewers that the chairman of CBS, William S Paley, insisted that it continue.
Gunsmoke (which had originally begun on radio in 1952, with William Conrad as Matt Dillon) continued into the mid-1970s, notching up 635 episodes and making Arness a household name.
Born James King Aurness (he later dropped the "u") in Minneapolis on May 26, 1923, he was the son of a retired medical supplies salesman of Norwegian descent. As a boy James relished the outdoor life, hunting, fishing and sailing. The family was musical, and he joined a local church choir.
He went to West High School, Minneapolis, but during his first year at Beloit College in Wisconsin (1942-43) he was drafted, and when his unit went ashore in the Anzio landings, the commander of his assault craft sent him out first, since Arness's height would reveal the depth of the water.
This earned Arness a leg wound, a journey home and an honourable discharge. He underwent a number of operations on his leg, but continued to suffer pain, especially when mounting a horse, and he walked with a slight limp.
Arness worked as a radio announcer in Minneapolis before moving to California, where he joined a theatre group. He was spotted by a talent scout, and introduced to the film producer and director Dore Schary.
Arness made his big screen debut in 1947, in The Farmer's Daughter, then had a part in The People Against O'Hara (1951) alongside Spencer Tracy. In between roles he took various odd jobs and spent time beachcombing in Mexico.
In 1951 he appeared in the science fiction film The Thing from Another World (1951), in which a scientist at a research station in the Arctic discovers a flying saucer buried in the ice. The frozen pilot is accidentally thawed out by an electric blanket, and comes back to life as The Thing (Arness).
He featured in The First Travelling Saleslady (1956), with Ginger Rogers, before embarking on four films with John Wayne: Big Jim McLain; Island in the Sky and Hondo (both 1953); and The Sea Chase (1955).
In all Arness made some 50 films for cinema and television, most of them Westerns. After the demise of Gunsmoke, he appeared in the 1976 television film The Macahans and the ABC series How the West Was Won (1978-79). His television credits also included McLain's Law (1981), The Alamo (1987) and Red River (1988).
An intensely private man, Arness had no time for publicists or the glitz of Hollywood. His less reserved younger brother, Peter Graves, who died last year, starred in the television series Mission Impossible and played Captain Clarence Oveur in the film Airplane!
James Arness married first, in 1948, Virginia Chapman, with whom he had a son, Rolf, and a daughter, Jenny; he also adopted her son by a previous marriage, Craig. The union was dissolved in 1963, and in 1978 he married, secondly, Janet Surtees. Jenny died in 1975, and Craig in 2004. Arness is survived by his second wife, by his son Rolf and by Janet's son, Jim.