|An American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke for 20 years. His younger brother was actor Peter Graves. Arness has the distinction of having played the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in five separate decades: 1955 to 1975 in the weekly series, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s. In Europe Arness reached cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won.
Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents were Rolf Cirkler Aurness (July 22, 1894 – July 1982), a businessman, and Ruth (née Duesler) Aurness (died September 1986), a journalist. His father's ancestry was Norwegian, his mother's German. The family name had been Aursnes, but when Rolf's father Peter Aursnes emigrated from Norway in 1887, he changed it to Aurness. Arness and his family were Methodists.
Arness attended John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School and West High School in Minneapolis. Despite "being a poor student and skipping many classes", he graduated from high school in June 1942. He then enlisted in the United States Army to serve in World War II.
Arness' younger brother was actor Peter Graves (1926–2010). Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name.
In his prewar years, Arness worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, loading and unloading railway boxcars at the Minneapolis freight-yards, and logging in Pierce, Idaho.
Arness wanted to be a naval fighter pilot, but he felt his poor eyesight would bar him. His height of 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) ended his hopes, since 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) was the limit for aviators. Instead, he was called for the Army and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943.
Arness served as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded during Operation Shingle, at Anzio, Italy.
After his discharge, James Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his performing career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945.
Aurness soon began acting, and appeared in films. He began with RKO, which immediately changed his name to "Arness". His film debut was as Loretta Young's (Katie Holstrom) brother, Peter Holstrom, in The Farmer's Daughter (1947).
Though identified with westerns, Arness also appeared in two science fiction films, The Thing from Another World (in which he portrayed the title character) and Them!. He was a close friend of John Wayne and co-starred with him in Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island in the Sky, and The Sea Chase.
John Wayne was originally offered the starring role in an upcoming TV western drama titled Gunsmoke. Wayne turned down the offer, but strongly recommended Arness for the role.
After Gunsmoke ended, Arness performed in western-themed movies and television series, including How the West Was Won, and in five made-for-television Gunsmoke movies between 1987 and 1994. An exception was as a big city police officer in a short-lived 1981 series, McClain's Law. His role as Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won made him into a cult figure in many European countries, as the series has been re-broadcast many times around Europe, where it became more popular than in the states.
Arness did the narration for Harry Carey, Jr.'s Comanche Stallion (directed by Clyde Lucas).