‘Gunsmoke’: How James Arness Became an Actor in His Own Words

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Seemed so simple. James Arness, the Gunsmoke star, was nudged into acting by a buddy from the military.

This was post World War II. Arness, long before he was Marshal Matt Dillon, was a rifleman in the Army. He was severely injured in the Battle of Anzio, a conflict on the coast of Italy. And he was honorably discharged the next year. He returned home to Minneapolis.

So what to do with your life?

James Arness talked about his two decades of Gunsmoke and how he got into acting with TrueWest magazine. This was back in 2001, when he was 78 and in a mood to reflect on his expansive, interesting life. This is how he answered the question, ‘how’d you get into acting?’

“I came home from the service to Minneapolis, and I was cruising along and enjoying being back home and in civilian life,” Arness said. “A friend of mine who had been in the Navy out here in Southern California had just gotten home, and he called me up and we met and had a few drinks and he said, ‘Boy, we ought be out there right now, it’s a great place.’

“He knew some guy, who had been an extra in movies,” Arness said. “So we came out, looked him up, and thought maybe we’d get on as extras once in a while. We just kind of drifted in it. I did wind up going to a little acting school and picked up on that, and things just sort of opened up there for a while.”

Arness Found Quick Success on Way to ‘Gunsmoke’

Fortunately, for Arness, there was obvious acting talent in his family. His younger brother, Peter Graves, also got into acting. He was Jim Phelps in the Mission: Impossible TV series and the pilot in the comedy Airplane and its sequel.

Arness, after the Army, still was a decade away from Gunsmoke. He became a radio announcer in Minneapolis before he moved to California. He still was known as James “Aurness.” He’d yet to tweak his last name to Arness.

Movie directors liked the affable Arness, who at 6-foot-7, towered over the other actors. He found acting jobs, eventually working with John Wayne on four pictures. And it was Wayne who said Arness would make a terrific Matt Dillon when Gunsmoke creators were casting the show.

The rest, as they say, is TV history. Gunsmoke stayed on the air for two decades. When it ended in 1975, Gunsmoke was the longest-running drama in TV history. Arness also starred in five Gunsmoke reunion movies.

Arness Was One of the Most Recognizable TV Actors

It’s all how James Arness became one of the most identifiable characters in TV history. Marshall Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke always will be its own chapter when charting the early history of the genre. Arness was more than happy to play the role of cowboy for much of his career.

“I don’t think that simply putting on a suit and tie is necessarily going to be good for me,” Arness told the New York Times in 1978. “I don’t mind being typecast. It’s certainly the area that I’ve been right for. I look around at so much of the stuff that’s being done, in theatrical features and television, and I wonder, ‘Well, gee, would I like to do that particular role?’ No, I wouldn’t want to. There isn’t that much around that’s very appealing to me, for my type of thing, what I do.”

And to think, it all started because Arness had a good buddy in the Army, encouraging him to join him in Hollywood.

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