Friday, June 3, 2011

The Late Great James Arness

James Arness, who played Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke and the title creature in The Thing (1951), passed today at the age of 88.

James Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 26 May 1923. He was followed three years later, Peter Aurness, who would also become a famous actor under the name Peter Graves. He was a freshman at Beloit College in Wisconsin when he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. He was one of the men who made the landing at Anzio, Italy in 1944. Later he was on patrol and walked into a German machine gun nest. The resulting fire fight resulted in wounds to Mr. Arness's lower right leg. He spent months at a stateside hospital before he was honourably discharged in January 1945.

At the suggestion of his brother Peter, James Aurness attended school to become a radio announcer. He would be a disc jockey for only a few months to accompany a friend to California. He had only meant to stay a short while, but eventually decided to remain to take up acting. He trained in acting at the Bliss-Hayden Theatre in Beverly Hills, California. It was there that he was discovered by his agent.

Mr. Aurness would make his screen début in The Farmer's Daughter in 1947. He had small roles in such films as Battleground (1949) and Wagon Master (1950). Fittingly enough, he made his  début on television in a Western, in a 1950 episode of The Lone Ranger. For the next several years James Arness (he had simplified the spelling of his last name) would appear in such films as Stars in My Crown (1950), Double Crossbones (1951), Carbine Williams (1952), Horizons West (1952), The Veil of Baghdad (1953), Her Twelve Men (1954), and Flame of the Islands (1956). He would become a favourite of science fiction fans, appearing in two classic sci-fi films: The Thing From Another World and Them! (1954).  Under contract to John Wayne's production company, James Arness would appear in four films with The Duke: Big Jim McClain (1952), Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953), and The Sea Chase  (1955).

Even though it was the role for which he was best known, James Arness was reluctant to test for the role of Marshall Matt Dillon in the television version of the hit radio show Gunsmoke. He worried that starring in a TV series could hamper his career in motion pictures. Even after CBS awarded him the role, James Arness was hesitant to take it. It was John Wayne himself who urged him to take the role, pointing out that it was a big break. Mr. Wayne would even introduce the first episode of Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke was not the first adult Western. When it premiered in 1955 it was beaten to that title by The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which had premiered four days before it. But Gunsmoke would prove to be the more successful of the two and as a result the more influential of the two. Gunsmoke would run for twenty seasons, a record matched only by Law and Order and surpassed by The Simpsons.  James Arness would appear in one of many cameos by television Western stars in the Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James (1959).

Following the epic run of Gunsmoke, James Arness would appeaer as a mountain man in the television movie The Macahans. He also starred in the short lived Western television seris How the West Was Won and the short lived police drama McClain's Law. He would appear in the mini-series The Alamo: Thriteen Days to Glory, a television adaptation of Red River and, starting in 1987, five Gunsmoke televison movies.

James Arness will forever be rememberd as Matt Dillon. And while that role occupied a large portion of his career, it must be pointed out that it was not the full extent of his career. If James Arness is fondly remembered by science fiction fans for his role in The Thing, it is not simply because he would later become Matt Dillon, but because he played the role so well. James Arness was flexible enough an actor that he could be an Indian scout, a pilot, or a mountain man and be convincing as all of them.

Of course, it must also be pointed that Mr. Arness must have had an enormous sense of commitment. After all, he starred on Gunsmoke for twenty years at a time even then when actors would leave series after five or seven years. He was definitely a consummate professional. For James Arness it was not the size of his own role that was important, but the show itself. He urged the writers and the producers to take the spotlight off Matt Dillon so that the other regular characters and even guest stars could have their own episodes. On the set of Gunsmoke, Mr. Arness was known for his easy going manner, his sense of humour, and a fondness for practical jokes.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that James Arness was not only a hero on screen, but off screen as well. During World War II he was awared the Bronze Star, Medals, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He was by all accounts a quiet man who genuinely cared about people. In fact, it is a mark of his greatness that in the event of his demise Mr. Arness had written a letter to his fans for his wife to post to his official web site in the event of his demise. Sadly, that letter appeared today. So great was James Arness that he thought of the fans who had supported him in his career in the event of his death. Until the very end he was a total gentleman.

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