How Did James Arness Die? The Life and Death of James Arness, the Star of Gunsmoke

James Arness, a renowned American actor celebrated for his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon in the enduring TV series Gunsmoke, as well as his roles in various Western productions like How the West Was Won and The Thing from Another World, left an indelible mark on Hollywood. His career spanned five decades, and while his life story is well-known, we’ll revisit it with a fresh perspective.

Early Life and Military Service

Born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, James Arness was the son of Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a businessman, and Ruth Duesler, a journalist. His younger brother, Peter Graves, also became a renowned actor. Arness’ academic journey was marked by academic struggles and a penchant for skipping classes. After a brief stint at Beloit College in 1942, he decided to drop out.

In 1943, Arness was drafted into the US Army during World War II. Despite his aspirations of becoming a naval fighter pilot, his height of 6 feet 7 inches and poor eyesight prevented him from realizing this dream. He served as a rifleman in the 3rd Infantry Division and bravely participated in the invasion of Italy. During the Battle of Anzio, he sustained a leg injury, earning him the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. His recovery took several months, and he bore a slight limp as a lifelong reminder of his service.

Acting Career and Gunsmoke

Following the war, Arness ventured to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, where he decided to change his surname from Aurness to Arness to avoid confusion with another actor. He commenced with minor roles in films such as The Farmer’s Daughter, Battleground, and Wagon Master. Notably, he featured in science fiction films like The Thing from Another World, where he portrayed the alien creature.

His breakthrough arrived when he secured the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, a television adaptation of a radio series. Interestingly, this role was initially offered to John Wayne, who declined but recommended Arness. Wayne further facilitated Arness’ casting by introducing him to the producers and making an appearance in the inaugural episode.

Gunsmoke became a colossal success, earning its place as one of the longest-running TV shows in history, airing for 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975 and comprising 635 episodes. Arness played Dillon throughout its entire duration, establishing himself as one of television’s most recognizable figures. He also reprised his role in five TV movies based on Gunsmoke during the 1980s and 1990s.

Arness’ career extended beyond Gunsmoke to other Western productions such as How the West Was Won, The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory, Red River, and Gunsmoke: To the Last Man. He also participated in non-Western projects, including The Sea Chase, Them!, Island in the Sky, and McClain’s Law.

Personal Life and Death

Arness experienced two marriages during his lifetime. He first married Virginia Chapman in 1948, and they had three children: Rolf, Craig, and Jenny Lee. Tragically, Rolf passed away due to a drug overdose in 1971, while Jenny Lee succumbed to cancer in 1975. Arness and Chapman divorced in 1960.

In 1978, Arness tied the knot with Janet Surtees, and they remained married until his passing. Additionally, he maintained a long-term relationship with actress Thordis Brandt from 1965 to 1972.

Arness concluded his acting career in 1994, following his appearance in the last Gunsmoke movie. He lived a quiet life alongside his wife Janet in their Brentwood, Los Angeles residence. In 2001, he authored his autobiography, titled “James Arness: An Autobiography.”

On June 3, 2011, at the age of 88, James Arness passed away due to natural causes. Before his departure, he left a heartfelt letter for his devoted fans to be shared on his website. In this message, he expressed deep gratitude for their unwavering support throughout his career. He also conveyed his profound love for his family and friends, particularly his wife Janet. In his parting words, he reflected on the wonderful life he had lived, blessed by the presence of numerous loving individuals and cherished friendships.

In Conclusion

James Arness remains an iconic figure in American television history. His portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke over two decades solidified his status as a household name and a Western genre legend. His extensive body of work in various shows and movies showcased his talent and charisma.

Beyond his acting career, Arness was a war hero who served his country with valor. He was a devoted family man who held his wife and children close to his heart. He exemplified humility and graciousness, appreciating the support of his fans and the camaraderie of his colleagues.

In his peaceful passing at home, he left behind an enduring legacy of excellence and a heartfelt letter of gratitude. James Arness will forever be remembered as a giant of the screen and a gentleman of the heart.

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