James Arness on Anzio Beach in WWII
Four months shy of his 21st birthday, James King Aurness of Minneapolis, Minn., was waiting anxiously with fellow soldiers, standing on one of the U.S. Army’s WWII landing barges of the U.S. 3rd Army Infantry Division on January 22, 1944 as it forged its way to shore. They were heading to the beach at Anzio, where they faced immediate, horrendous, German Army resistance. Because Jim was 6-foot-7-inches tall, this young Army Private was ordered into the water first, determining its depth for the others. In his autobiography, Jim described it as being “waist high” as he stormed ashore dodging bullets and wounded men falling around him.
Anzio, located 30 miles south of Rome, was one of the deadliest battles of WWII. Anzio Beach was a stretch of sand 15 miles long and 7 miles deep. The infamous battle of Anzio lasted from January 22, 1944 to May 29, 1944. The British 1st Infantry Division landed north of Anzio. The 6615th Ranger Force attacked the port, while the 3rd Army Infantry Division landed south of town. By midnight, history books say that “36,000 men landed, securing a beachhead 2-3 miles deep.”
Seriously wounded in the assault by German machine-gun fire in his knee and lower leg, Jim earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for bravery under fire. It took 18 months recovery and rehabilitation time in military hospitals before being honorably discharged and sent home.
Jim, like thousands of other WWII veterans, enrolled in college, using the GI Bill benefits to get his education. A graduate of Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., he got a job at WLOL in Minneapolis in 1945. Later, he headed to California, trying to break into the movie business as a stuntman or actor. He dropped the “u” in his family name and became James Arness. With his good looks, good voice, education and radio experience, he landed a film part in 1947, playing the role of Loretta Young’s brother.
John Wayne became his close friend and mentor. James Arness signed a contract with Wayne’s company, BATJAC, in the early 50s and played in four films with him. They shared the same straight-forward manner, the same honesty, and the same May 26th birthday. Arness was offered the part of Dodge City’s Marshall Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke,” an adult TV western. His agent and friends advised him to turn it down.
But not John “Duke” Wayne, whose advice Arness highly respected. Duke told him to “take the part,” saying it would be a good opportunity for him to learn his craft. Wayne promised Jim he’d introduce him on the first TV show, and Arness “could take it from there.” True to his word, John Wayne, on September 10, 1955, introduced Jim, by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a new western TV show called ‘Gunsmoke,’ and there is only one man who could play the part. He’s a young fella and I’m proud to present James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon in ‘Gunsmoke.’ You’ll get used to him like you got used to me all these years.”
The show lasted for 20 years before it was cancelled by TV executives. But it continues on screen today, on CD’s and television reruns, 56 years after it first aired on TV, and is enjoyed daily on the Encore network by thousands of new and old fans. He made other films over the years, but he is most remembered as Marshall Matt Dillon.
“Gunsmoke” had good writers and the perfect cast who worked well together, and liked one another both onstage and off. The TV audience sensed that. Beautiful actress Amanda Blake played “Miss Kitty Russell,” who ran the boarding house saloon, where she took care of “her girls.” Fans wrote in and asked if Matt and Miss Kitty were ever going to marry. Arness and the writers thought it would make a whole different story, which they didn’t want. This also kept the home audiences guessing and watching each show, while the fan mail poured in.
Milburn Stone played “Doc Adams,” a no-nonsense, doctor who was expected to patch up every bullet hole and deliver every baby. Actor Dennis Weaver was a sympathetic “Chester,” the Marshall’s stiff-legged deputy who limped his way around the dirt streets of Dodge City, trying his best to keep up with Matt, or engaging Doc in an argument. There was nothing wrong with Dennis’ leg. It was his idea to add the limp to his character role. After nine years, actor Dennis Weaver left the show for other successful movie roles.
Colorado actor, Ken Curtis played “Festus Haggen,” replacing Weaver on the show as the Marshall’s new deputy. Ken established his own identity using the twangy speech of a dry-land Kansas farmer. Curtis was a big band singer, had sung with the Sons of the Pioneers, and had played in several John Ford movies, including “The Searcher.”
And then there was honest, sensible and trustworthy “Matt Dillon,” played by handsome James Arness who, as the U.S. Marshall, always won every gunfight. In private life, he was a practical joker. One day, he decided to fool his fellow actors and the director on the set. He put a blood capsule in his mouth and in a shooting scene where he stood tall in the street with his guns drawn, facing down the “bad guy,” two guns were fired. This time, Jim bit down on the blood capsule and fell down as though he was shot. Blood spewed out of his mouth, scaring his fellow actors because NOBODY shoots and kills Marshall Dillon.
He loved sailing on his catamaran, “Sea Smoke,” which he donated to the Sea Scouts. In 1973, he donated his 1,400 acre ranch in Northern Los Angeles County to Brandeis Institute. Jim learned how to fly and enjoyed flying his own plane with his wife, Janet, down to Baja and to other movie sets like Kanab, Utah. A private man, many of his friends were fellow pilots or television set workers.
His younger brother, Peter Graves, became an actor changing his last name to the name of their maternal grandfather, Graves. Peter’s biggest TV show hit was “Mission Impossible.” Peter died on March 14, 2010 at his home in Pacific Palisades, California.
Janet and Jim Arness were married for 33 years until his death on June 3, 2011 at age 88 at their home in Brentwood, Calif. His widow, three sons and four grandchildren survive him. Janet Arness continues to communicate with his fans through their official website, http://www.JamesArness.com.