HOLLYWOOD—TV western and cowboy star James Arness died at the age of 88 of natural causes on Friday, June 3, in his Los Angeles home.
James Arness. Photo courtesy of Link 81 Collection.
He was born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minn. Arness served his country in the army during WWII at Anzio, where he was wounded in his right leg and received the Purple Heart. His hit CBS TV series “Gunsmoke” ran from 1955 until the show ended in 1975. “Gunsmoke” still airs today all over the world. Jim’s character Matt Dillon may have had a limp, but the 6-foot, 7-inch actor became a giant in television westerns, and he was the face of protection and authority as the town’s marshal.
The series “Gunsmoke” along with ABC’s mega hit “Cheyenne” during the same era became the first in a series of what Hollywood considered the adult western genre. For years prior to the two hit shows, western serials on television had been mainly for children. “The Lone Ranger,” “Roy Rogers” and “Hopalong Cassidy” were the identity associated with this genre.
In the 1950s came two giants, Arness (“Gunsmoke”) and Clint Walker (“Cheyenne”) to engross television audiences and to change the face of westerns on the small screen forever. Arness and Walker did for TV westerns what John Wayne did for feature films. It was iconic western film star John Wayne who suggested Arness for the role of Matt Dillon. Wayne was originally offered the role when the show first debuted, and Warner Brothers leading lady Ann Sheridan was offered the leading female role as Miss Kitty. Sheridan was ill battling cancer at the time, so she declined the part, and Amanda Blake was cast as Matt’s leading lady.
James Arness in "The Thing." Photo courtesy of Link 81 Collection.
Though best remembered for his TV character Marshal Matt Dillon, Arness starred in movies as well. He co-starred opposite Loretta Young in “The Farmer’s Daughter” and worked with John Wayne’s Batjac production company, where he starred with Wayne in “Islands in the Sky,” “Hondo,” “The Sea Chase” and “Big Jim McLain.”
However, in 1951, in a move that shocked moviegoers, the actor starred in “The Thing,” an RKO Studios production about an alien that crashed in a spaceship in the arctic region of Iceland, then proceeded to kill scientists. Arness was barely recognizable for the role, since whenever he was seen as the alien, he wore full body makeup and costume. However, this film remains a cult classic with sci-fi movie audiences today.
“I still think it’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. I know it’s one of your favorites, as you featured that film in your latest book ‘The Prints of Classic Hollywood.’ I was very saddened today by Mr. Arness’s passing. God be with his wife and family,” said reader Bobby Head.
Matt Dillon became a part of the American landscape on “Gunsmoke.” Over the years, hundreds of major film stars appeared as guest stars in the series. This included Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson. Even Lana Turner and Bette Davis made appearances on the series, which was set in Dodge City.
Though Arness was a prolific actor over the years, it was westerns with which his fans identified him. He made groundbreaking and critically acclaimed acting performances in “How the West Was Won” and “McLain’s Law,” which aired as television miniseries in the early 1970s.
James Arness. Photo courtesy of Link 81 Collection.
One of Jim’s closest friends is the western legendary actor Clint Walker, who starred in ABC’s “Cheyenne,” and in films such as “The Dirty Dozen” and “Scream of the Wolf,” which co-starred Arness’s younger brother Peter Graves. When reached, Walker and his beautiful wife Susan were very sad about the death of their dear friend.
“James was a friend whom I admired and respected as a person, and an actor. His series ‘Gunsmoke’ was a national treasure and enjoyed the world over. He was a hero on screen and off. He was wounded in the military service of his country at Anzio. He was truly one of the good guys in Hollywood. It will never be the same without him,” said film and TV legend Clint Walker.
Actress Constance Towers, who starred opposite John Wayne in 1959’s “The Horse Soldiers” said, “Like the Duke, he was a brilliant actor, who was not given the credit for being such a great actor over his career. But we all know he was an excellent actor and a great American hero. Hollywood and the world grieves today along with his family and closest friends.”
Arness made his final TV appearance in 1994 in the film “Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice.” He’d previously appeared in several other films in honor of the esteemed TV show for which he became most respected and widely known. Arness loved his fans and corresponded with them throughout his retirement. His official website is where his newest fans over the past decades communicated with him.
For those of us who knew him well, he was a giant in more ways than one. A true American hero, who also became an American film and television star. He was known as a cowboy by many people around the world, but he was a simple, devoted and loving man to his family and friends.
A statement from the Arness family to the media said in part, “Jim will be deeply missed by his family and friends. In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to United Cerebral Palsy in Jim’s name.”
Arness is survived by his wife Janet, two sons and six grandchildren. The funeral services will be private.