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. Since I am an old man in my 60s, I have seen many James Arness movie/TV roles. This 1955 movie “Many Rivers to Cross” has Mr. Arness portrayed a trapper and there is a comment that starts a fight regarding Arness’ 6’7″ tallness. An old man says, “How’s the weather up thar?… Arness is listed in the credits at time 0:28 and I will see if YouTube has Arness’ main scenes.

    An added treat for me is the movie theme called “Higher Up the Berry Tree”. As a little kid with my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and Red Ryder Rifle I used to run around sangin’ the song where we lived in the country with plenty of possums ‘n rabbits to shoot at and miss…mostly on porpoise…

    I recommend that you purchase the DVD of this neat old film and tune.

    The higher up the berry tree the sweeter grows the berry

    The more you hug and kiss a gal the more she wants to marry

    The berry tree’s a wise old tree the sweetest fruit is his’n

    But marryin’ up with any gal is just like goin’ to prison


    Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall Till I find the gal I want, a’ gonna have none at all

    Cause higher up….

  2. CLARIFICATION: For all I know, Arness was an old school traditional Republican, with which I have no issue. The idiot comment was directed squarely at Kelsey Grammer who has seen enough of the degradation of the GOP to know better.

  3. Scott Supak:

    Like most public figures, we know little about Jim Arness’ true feelings. For most folks they change with time, experience, and new information. I simply admire the way he conducted his life. Just as I cannot countenance Rep Weiner (a Democrat) and his actions, I won’t condemn another for having different political inclinations from my own. I make no claim to political omniscience and am open to the merits of differing points of view.

  4. My mother, she’s 88 also. will be crushed she watched Gunsmoke religiously every day on the Encore Western Channel

  5. Yeah, it just goes to show one can be a competent artist and an idiot when it comes to politics.

  6. Arness was also a Republican and a big fan of Ronald Reagan.

    Funny how the record for playing the same character on TV for the longest consecutive time is held by two Republicans, Arness and Kelsey Grammer.

  7. Nal:

    Not sure. Sometimes they embed and sometimes they don’t. I just copy and past the website into the comment and hope for the best.

  8. Nal – we must be about the same age, I used to wait at the beginning of the show to out draw Dillon with MY Fanner 50! You can tell it’s Matell, it’s swell!

    Anyway I grew out of Gunsmoke but I always admired Arness because he never made the news. He was a big deal in his time but you never heard of him making a big deal out of himself.

  9. One of my favorite programs on television back in the old black & white days. Gunsmoke had been on the radio before it was a TV program. Marshal Dillon was played by William Conrad on the radio, but despite his remarkable speaking voice, Conrad was a portly man who did not “look like” what Marshal Dillon was supposed to look like. The radio version of Gunsmoke ran from 1952-1961.

    Festus, played by Ken Curtis, was one of the most interesting characters on Gunsmoke. The Festus character appeared to be only a little brighter than Barney Fife, but was good-hearted and loyal to Marshal Dillon. In reality, Ken Curtis was a gifted actor and singer. He was one of the original Sons of the Pioneers.

  10. mespo,

    Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the only one who taught me the value of living to be of service. Marshall Dillon was a fine exemplar of that standard as well. Mr. Arness was a television fixture in our house as a child in both the role of hero (Matt Dillon) and villain (The Thing from Howard Hawks “The Thing From Another World”, one of Arness’ rare bad guy roles).

  11. I remember as a little boy trying to outdraw Mister Dillon with my Fanner 50 at the beginning of each Gunsmoke episode.

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