RIP: James Arness, 1923-2011

Submitted by Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

It was Aristotle who first pointed out that a society both influences and is influenced by its role models. For a generation of Americans from 1955-1975, Marshall Matt Dillon filled that bill. Now at age 88, the actor who portrayed that role is dead. James Arness, older brother of actor Peter Graves, died of natural causes at his home in Brentwood California.

Arness played the laconic, introspective, and morally resolute U.S. Marshall for twenty years and an incredible 635 episodes. The landmark series, Gunsmoke, spanned five decades and holds the record (along with Law & Order) as the longest running scripted, non-animated television show. In stark contrast to today’s show business heroes, Arness was never flashy, gregarious, or quick to violence in his public persona. Instead, he was an intensely private person who bore the suicide of his daughter and death of his first wife (both by drug overdose) with a quiet dignity devoid of the public lamentations so front and center today.

Severely wounded at Anzio in 1944, Arness was the first soldier off the landing craft. Sent by his commander, his 6′ 7″stature made him the perfect gauge of the water’s depth. A few days later, his right leg and foot were shattered by machine gun fire. He returned to States for rehabilitation and the presentation of a Purple Heart. Following his discharge, Arness worked as a radio announcer. His movie career began when he auditioned for a bit part as Loretta Young’s brother in 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter.

He became friends with actor John Wayne after playing opposite him in the western classic, Hondo, and it was Wayne who recommended him for the part of Marshall Matt Dillon in 1955 after eschewing the role himself.  Gunsmoke introduced Americans to scores of future stars like Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, and even Harrison Ford.  Betty Davis made a guest starring role on this small screen epic. The show also made actors Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty), Milburn Stone (Doc), and the ubiquitous Ken Curtis (Festus) household names.

Arness’ last role in a successful series was the critically acclaimed How the West Was Won in 1979. He would also star in McClain’s Law in 1981 and other reprises of his famous role through the 1990’s.

Arness’ funeral is private and limited to family and friends. Exactly as you would expect it to be.


Sources: Washington Post; Seattle Times; and

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

25 thoughts on “RIP: James Arness, 1923-2011”

  1. mespo,

    Thanks for this thread, which gave us a chance to reminisce about a good man and some good times—neither of which were perfect—although those days seemed better and most people appeared a bit more cordial and realistic, at least in my worldview of experiencing the 50s and early 60s.

  2. He is a very young James Arness in ‘Many Rivers to Cross’

  3. I forgot to mention that Sheb Wooley (Purple People Eater fame) was the singer on the Cyril J. Mockridge tune.

    Ol’ Sheb died a few years back and like Festus, Marshill Dillin, and many other good cowpokes, little kids have lost some mighty good male role models.

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