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James Arness

James Arness
Matthew Dillon, "Gunsmoke"

James, the real-life brother of "Mission: Impossible" star Peter Graves, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 26, 1923. Interestingly, it was film star John Wayne who got James his first break, as Marshal Matt Dillon in the television version of "Gunsmoke." As the story goes, CBS wanted Wayne to take the part in 1955, when "Gunsmoke" made the transition from radio to television. Instead of offering the role to William Conrad (who played it on radio), CBS approached Wayne to play Dillon. He declined, but suggested a fellow film actor Arness for the part. Out of respect for Wayne, CBS agreed to audition the 6'7" actor, but the network also met with 25 other actors, including Raymond Burr.

After being selected to play Dillon, Arness had a change of heart and asked Wayne to get him out of his contract. Wayne convinced Arness to give television a try. He did, and stayed with "Gunsmoke" for 20 years, until the show was cancelled in 1975.

Though "Gunsmoke" undoubtedly made Arness rich, it did not provide him with acting honors. In 1956, he was nominated for a "Best Actor, Drama" Emmy, and lost to Robert Young, from "Father Knows Best." Nominated again the next year, he lost to Robert Young a second time. His third loss occurred in 1959, to Raymond Burr, who won for "Perry Mason."

Arness' post-"Gunsmoke" roles were less successful. His John Wayne-influenced "How the West Was Won"--a lavish ABC-TV production, (with many episodes shot at a two-hour length)--lasted just one season (1978-79). Recognizing that the western no longer attracted younger viewers, executives then created a police drama for Arness, "McClain's Law." But that 1981-82 show failed to find an audience.

In the late 1980's, Arness returned to what he knew best: "Gunsmoke." But his four TV movies of the series, produced as specials between 1987 and 1993, were often critical flops. "Variety," for example, labeled 1991's "Gunsmoke: To the Last Man" as a "demeaning experience for everyone involved...[a] debacle..." In reviewing the same show, "People" magazine suggested that, "at age 68, Arness is so wizened he looks more like he should be playing checkers by the general store than galloping after varmints."

Arness' current acting plans are uncertain. He rarely looks for work, and told one interviewer, "I [just] don't like to go out and beat on doors."