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James Arness –

Arness in an episode of GUNSMOKE.

About James Arness (1923 – 2011)

James Arness was born on May 26th, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents, Rolf and Ruth Duesler Aurness named him James King Aurness. Acting runs in the family. Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame is his younger brother. His parents managed to stay together until James and his brother were up and out before getting divorced.

James Arness is an American leading man who found great fame on television. At 6'6", Arness was one of the tallest leading men in Hollywood.

James went to West High School, where he was introduced to acting through performing in school plays, though he wanted to work at sea. During 1943, James was drafted into the army, and saw action with the 3rd Infantry Division, during the invasion of Anzio.

James was severely wounded in the leg and foot by German machine gun fire. While he didn't lose his leg and only part of his foot, it was a hindrance for the rest of his life, and was his ticket out of the army. He spent some time at U.S Army 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa.

James was decorated with 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.

After James was able to leave the hospital, he took a radio class at the University of Minnesota, doing really well, and even got a job at a Minneapolis radio station. But, instead, James and a friend headed to Hollywood, in hopes in finding work in the film industry.

In 1947, Arness appeared in his first film, THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER.

James met his first wife, actress Virginia Chapman, while acting in a production of CANDIDA at The Pasadena Community Playhouse. Virginia urged him to work harder at his career. So he got small parts in film, as well as doing stage work.

In 1951, James was cast as the space alien in the 1951 sci-fi yarn, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD; a role that he found to be a little embarrassing in his later years, looking back, but appreciated the fans who love his performance.

The other famous sci-fi film that James is known for is the 1954 giant ant film, THEM.

James married Virginia Chapman in 1948, and they had two children; Jenny;(b 1950) and Rolf;(b 1952). James adopted Virginia's son, Craig.

James got his big break while playing a Greek warrior in a stage production. He was discovered by John Wayne's agent, Charles K. Feldman, who introduced James to John Wayne, who became James' good friend and mentor.

James was cast in several of John Wayne's films, such as BIG JIM MCLAIN;1952, HONDO;1953, ISLAND IN THE SKY; 1953, and SEA CHASE; 1955.

In 1956, James Arness got his first starring role, in the film, GUN THE MAN DOWN.
Despite the urban legend story, John Wayne was never offered the lead in the TV series, GUNSMOKE, but was the one who recommended James for the role of Marshall Matt Dillon of Dodge City, in this TV series. John Wayne also talked the reluctant James into taking the role.

John Wayne counseled him; "Go ahead and take it, Jim," Wayne urged him. "You're too big for pictures. Guys like Gregory Peck and I don't want a big lug like you towering over us. Make your mark in television."

James Arness went on to great fame in this role. The series lasted a record of twenty years; from 1955 -1975. James was nominated three times for a Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of the stalwart Dodge City lawman. He focused just on this role, taking time to have a private life, which included family and out door activities.

In 1960, James won a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1751 Vine Street.

His private life turned rocky, when his wife got hooked on drugs in the 1960s. James filed for divorce in 1963, and for custody of the three children, which was granted to him. He became a single father, but very much so gainfully employed, and did the best he could raising the kids.

1975 was not a good year, in that James' daughter, Jenny, a troubled soul, killed herself, and his ex-wife died of a drug overdose.

In 1978, James found love again, and married Janet Surtrees, and also became step-father to her son, Jim. This marriage lasted for the rest of James' life.

After GUNSMOKE was cancelled in 1975, James was kept busy doing a mini-series, two TV series, and TV movies, as the star or co-star; right up to when he retired sometime in the 1990s. Six of those TV movies were the further adventures of Matt Dillon from GUNSMOKE, and two were well-received western yarns. The mini-series was called HOW THE WEST WAS WON, which spawned the TV series of the same name, in which he portrayed one of the lead characters, Patriarch Zeb Macahan.

James Arness died of natural causes on June 3rd, 2011, at the ripe old age of 88, in Los Angeles, Calif. He was survived by his wife Janet Surtrees, son Rolf, and step-son Jim. Craig had died in 2004. James also had six grandchildren and a great grandchild.

James Arness's movie credits include...


James Arness's television credits include...

GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) As Marshal Dillon, in the longest running drama on TV.
HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1976-1979)



James Arness (right) with James Whitmore in THEM!.


James Arness in THE THING.