James Arness, a World War II veteran beloved by millions for his iconic portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running Western TV series “Gunsmoke,” died June 3 after a long illness.
At 6 foot 7 inches, Arness was, quite literally, a big star, towering over even the likes of his good friend and Hollywood mentor John Wayne. But it was that same impressive height that prevented Arness from fulfilling his dream of being a naval aviator in World War II—he was simply too tall for cockpit duty. As a soldier in the 7th Regiment of the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division, Arness took part in the storming of Anzio in 1944. He was severely wounded in the leg by German machine-gun fire, receiving the Purple Heart and an injury that would plague him for the rest of his days. Arness also was awarded the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, and the European-Mideast Campaign Medal.
After the war, it was Arness’ younger brother Peter (later known to audiences as the actor Peter Graves) who encouraged him to have a go at an acting career. With his giant stature, James Arness early on found Hollywood work playing threatening figures—most famously as the space-alien monster in the 1951 classic, “The Thing From Another World.” (Arness also would co-star, as a good guy this time, in another movie revered by science-fiction buffs, 1954’s “Them!”) His chances got a boost when he met and befriended John Wayne, who took an interest in furthering the promising actor’s career. Arness co-starred with the Duke in “Big Jim McLain” (1952), “Island in the Sky” (1953), “Hondo” (1953), and “The Sea Chase” (1955). Wayne was the one who recommended Arness to the producers of a TV show in development called “Gunsmoke,” a Western based on the popular radio series. Arness balked at first, but Wayne convinced him to take the role of Marshal Dillon. Wayne himself filmed an intro to the show’s debut episode in September 1955, and what followed became the stuff of TV legend. “Gunsmoke” ran for more than 20 years—the longest-running dramatic series in American television history (“Law & Order” tied it in 2010 in number of seasons, but not in number of episodes)—and Arness as Dillon came to epitomize the tall, laconic, straight-shooting lawman of the Old West.
From the beaches of Anzio in World War II to the streets of Dodge City in the West of the imagination, James Arness represented an American ideal—a hero who was large but amiable, powerful but fair-minded, imbued with a sense of right and wrong that was never judgmental, but always just.
Photos attached courtesy of the Collection of Jim Wise, author of Stars in Khaki