James Arness, best known for playing Marshal Matt Dillon for two decades on the western series, “Gunsmoke” was beloved by generations of all ages. On camera, fans knew him as the peacekeeper in Dodge City, but he was also much more than his character.
Born James King Aurness on May 26, 1923, he was the son of businessman Rolf Aurness and journalist Ruth Duesler. In 1943, the army drafted him as a rifleman and served in the Battle of Anzio. During the battle, he wounded his right leg wound up in a hospital. While there, nurses suggested that his voice would be perfect for the radio.
After being discharged, Arness would take the nurses’ advice, and he got his start in entertainment, working in radio. Later, he moved to Hollywood to pursue acting. Soon after booking small parts as an actor, he dropped the “u” in his name and became “James Arness” for the rest of his career.
How The Duke Helped James Arness Book ‘Gunsmoke’
The show that would make him a household name, “Gunsmoke,” began as a radio show in 1952, and three years later, it transitioned to television in 1955. Fellow Western star John Wayne suggested 32-year-old Arness after the two worked together on previous projects.
“I was under contract to Duke’s company for two years before Gunsmoke came along,” Arness once said. “I had been in about four pictures for his company with him. When the “Gunsmoke” offer came in, he said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a young man here under contract who I think would maybe fit the bill.’ So he very graciously offered to introduce the first episode. And it was great. It was a wonderful thing. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. There just was never anybody else like him.”
For 20 years, Arness would play the righteous Dodge City lawman until the show ended its run in 1975. After “Gunsmoke,” Arness performed in Western-themed movies and television series, including How the West Was Won. He also appeared in and in five made-for-television “Gunsmoke” movies. In 2006, Arness said he felt like the “luckiest guy in the world” because of his experiences he gained from “Gunsmoke.”