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Do You Know... James Arness?

Do you know…
that James Arness (born: James King Aurness on May 26, 1923 Minneapolis, Minnesota, – died: on June 3, 2011 in Los Angeles, California) was an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years?

  • James ArnessDuring World War 2, Arness served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy.

  • After World War 2, James Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945.

  • He began with RKO, which immediately changed his name from "Aurness". His film debut was as Loretta Young's (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in The Farmer's Daughter (1947).

  • An urban legend has it that John Wayne was offered the leading role of Matt Dillon in the longtime favorite television show Gunsmoke, but he turned it down, recommending instead James Arness for the role. The only part of this story that is true is that Wayne did indeed recommend Arness for the part. Wayne introduced Arness in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke, in 1955.

  • Arness has the distinction of having played the role of Dillon in five separate decades: 1955 to 1975 in the weekly series, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s?

  • In Europe, Arness reached cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won.

  • His younger brother was actor Peter Graves.

  • Arness was married twice, first to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until their divorce in 1960. He adopted her son.  She died of a drug overdose in 1976.

  • Arness was married to Janet Surtees from 1978 until his death.  He had two sons, Rolf (born February 18, 1952) and Craig (died December 14, 2004).  His daughter Jenny Lee Aurness (May 23, 1950 – May 12, 1975) committed suicide by overdose. Rolf Aurness became World Surfing Champion in 1970. Craig Aurness founded the stock photography agency Westlight and also was a photographer for National Geographic. Arness is survived by Rolf and by his adopted son.

  • Arness died of natural causes at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.

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