Brother James King Arness, Beloit ’46 (May 26, 1923 – June 3, 2011), was a well-known and beloved actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon on the 20-year running TV series GUNSMOKE. James Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis on May 26, 1923 (he dropped the “u” when he started acting). His younger brother was the equally well-known actor Peter Graves.
Brother Arness is remembered fondly at Beloit. Following are brief excerpts from the Beloit College Terrarium feature, Fridays with Fred by Fred Burwell:
The summer before he entered Beloit College in 1942, Jim Arness (then Aurness) worked in a logging camp in the mountains of Idaho. It was an appropriate experience for the strapping 6- foot-7-inch young man, whom the college yearbook later dubbed “Beloit’s Paul Bunyan.” He had often found himself restless, eager to explore the wider world beyond his hometown Minneapolis. Several times he’d taken off with a friend, crisscrossing the United States and even traversing the Caribbean Sea, in search of adventure. Despite his checkered high school career, however, Arness’s mother urged him to try college. Summer over, Jim sat down and filled out an application to Beloit College, thoughtfully pondering over its many questions:
“What influences led you to desire to come to this institution?”
– “Small school more opportunity to study.”
“What definite vocation, if any, have you considered?”
“If undecided, give present preferences (three) in order of choice:”
– “Radio, music, Philosophy”
An acting career may not yet have been on his radar, but the 19-year-old loved to sing.
“Another personal satisfaction,” he wrote, “has been singing in a fine church choir. It has made me feel that I may want to go on in some field of music, however c’est le guerre and the future is uncertain.”
Jim’s useful talent made him popular, and no one could miss spotting the tall, tall, man leaning over the piano directing a chorus of his fraternity brothers.
“Studies kind of went out the window,” he later admitted in his autobiography. “In fact, we never did study. Every night the frat members had a sending-off party for brothers going into the service.”
One day in March of 1943, Beta hosted a going away party for “Big Jim,” who was about to leave Beloit College for the United States Army. He eventually earned several service awards, including the Purple Heart, after participating in the Operation Shingle battle at the Anzio beachhead in Italy, where a Nazi bullet severely wounded him in the leg.
Jim Arness never forgot about Beloit and made notable visits at least twice. “Marshal Dillon came to Beloit Sunday and caused as big a sensation here as he causes weekly in Dodge City,” a Beloit Daily News reporter commented in September 1957. “From the moment he arrived Arness was mobbed by children from 8 months to 80 years who pushed, shoved and elbowed fellow citizens to get a peek at the star of Gunsmoke…Upon arriving he was met with a total traffic jam of cars, kids and parents…” Arness was in town to promote the new showroom at Vic Hansen and Sons, a local auto dealership. He signed autographs, posed for photographs, and addressed a crowd of 10,000. Although he’d hoped for a quiet visit to the Beloit College campus, a mob followed him there. He met with fraternity brothers at the Beta Theta Pi house on College Street, where he joined them for some old familiar chapter songs and posed with them for several photographs.
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Brother Arness began his performing career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945. His film debut was as with Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter. Though identified with westerns, he also appeared in two science fiction films, The Thing from Another World and Them! He was close friends with John Wayne and co-starred with the Duke in several movies. After Gunsmoke ended its 20-year reign in 1975, Arness performed in western-themed movies and television series. James Arness: An Autobiography was released in September 2001, with a foreword by Burt Reynolds. Arness noted that he realized, “[I]f I was going to write a book about my life, I better do it now … ’cause I’m not getting any younger.”
Despite his stoic character, according to Ben Bates, his Gunsmoke stunt double, Arness laughed “from his toes to the top of his head.” Shooting on the Gunsmoke set was suspended because Arness got a case of the uncontrollable giggles. James Arness disdained publicity and was said to be a shy and sensitive man who enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. Arness died of natural causes at his Brentwood, California home on June 3, 2011. For his contributions to the television industry, Arness has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
His Beta Theta Pi chapter, the Chi Chapter, was founded in 1860 and was disbanded in 1988.