(Here’s another offering from my favorite guest blogger, my wife and soulmate Kimi.)
During 635 episodes spanning 20 years, television viewers invited James Arness and the rest of the cast of the long-running Western Gunsmoke into their homes.
The 6’7” Arness was born James Aurness in May of 1923 (he would later drop the “u” at the recommendation of one of his first directors.) As a boy, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. He was drafted in 1943 and shipped out to Casablanca. He was later discharged because of a severe leg injury he received from German machine-gun fire.
While recuperating, his brother Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible and Airplane fame) convinced him to explore a career in radio. Arness proved fairly successful at the medium, and appeared headed for a career in broadcasting when he accompanied a friend to Hollywood in the hopes of finding film extra roles.
After a stint as a beach bum in San Onofre, he was cast in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met and married his first wife, Virginia Chapman. With her encouragement, Arness began finding roles, often cast as villainous character due to his size.
It was while playing in one of these roles that he was spotted by agent Charles Feldman, who also represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who immediately put him under personal contract.
It was during this time that the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke was offered to Wayne. Duke turned down the role and recommended Arness for the part. (Some say Wayne was never actually offered the role, but in a 2006 interview with James Arness by Leon Worden of SCVTV in Santa Clarita, Arness himself implies that Wayne did in fact turn down the role before recommending him.)
At first Arness feared the role would adversely affect his film career, but Wayne proved persuasive. He even filmed a teaser at the start of the first episode to help introduce America to the man who would become a generation’s role model and friend.
Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been Westerns and that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight. A Western. A new television show called "Gunsmoke." When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke," I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. And now I’m proud to present "Gunsmoke."
Duke certainly knew what he was talking about.