Sunday, July 17, 2011

Remembering James Arness


Requests to go the set of Gunsmoke were usually meant with stoney silence from the CBS PR staff.
The set was usually closed. On the orders of the shy and reclusive star James Arness.
But despite such admonitions I found myself strolling down that familiar street in 1972 when I was still new at the game of TV criticism.
How did I get there?
It was easy. I was pals with the executive producer, Britisher Philip Leacock. I'd interviewed him the year before and told him my favorite movie as a kid had been 1954's The Little Kidnappers which he directed.
"You've made a friend for life!" Leacock laughed and said the next time I was in L.A. I should visit him on the Gunsmoke set where he was running interference as executive producer. He was also directing a 1972 episode titled The Judgment and I got to see how he carefully crafted scenes and motivated such actors as Arness who had been playing the same character for decades.
Arness ambled over and gave me a quote to use in my Leacock profile and then ambled off. He wasn't aloof mainly very shy and besides he'd already answered the same questions hundreds of time.
Arness who died on June3 was a one character star. For 20 years he essayed the role of Matt Dillon. He did have careers before and after but they have been largely disregarded by the public.
One talking to Loretta Young I asked her about the three unknown she had chosen to play her brothers in the 1947 classic The Farmer's Daughter which deservedly won her an Academy Award.
"Jim Areness became Masrshall Dillon, Lex Barker became Tarzan and Keith Andes had a long career," she joked. "Could I pick them or what?"
She believed Arness was quiet and shy because of his towering height of six feet seven inches.
Born James Aurness he had grown up in Minneapolis and after graduating from high school in 1942 he joined the U.S. Army, landing on the Anzio beachhead in 1944. He'd wanted to be an aviator but his height was against him.
He began his career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in and then became a protege of John Wayne who used him in such Wayne flicks as Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island In The Sky and The Sea Chase Arness's biggest role in movies was in the sci fi classic The Thing --he was chosen to play the hulking monster because of his size.
In 1955 Wayne heard CBS was adapting its radio serial Gunsmoke to TV and recommended Arness who tested and won the part. And Wayne even introduced him on the first episode.
The story that Wayne had been first choice for the part was "rubbish" to quote the Duke in the only interview I ever had with him.
Arness had to dye his blond hair darker to get the part and remained at the helm for a remarkable 20-year run. The first five years the series was only a half hour But Arness was an instant hit as the marshall who was on the side of justice and only used violence as a last measure.
Co-star Amanda Blake who played saloon gal Kitty once disclosed she had to stand on a box during their love scenes.
The star of the radio series was burly William Conrad and when I asked him how it felt to get turned down by CBS he snapped "It felt damned bad. They said I was too stocky. They meant I was fat."
And days after I'd met Arness there I was on the set of Mission:Impossible interviewing his younger brother Peter Graves. He smiled when I described our brief encounter and said I'd been lucky to get that much out of Arness.
After Gunsmoke Arness starred in TV movies collectively titled How The West Was Won and then made a few Gunsmoke TV movies.
He did tackle one other role in a very short lived 1981 series McClain's Law but he seemed ill at ease in the modern world and was complaining about the long speeches he had to memorize.
I finally got to interview him then and he was amiable enough. Already he was talking about retiring to his ranch and finally ending the agony of acting.
Did he mind being remembered as Matt Dillon?
"To be remembered at all is something. And Matt was my kind of character."
Arness last acted in 1988 in a TV movie remake of Red River --he took John Wayne's part as a salute to the Duke.
James Arness died aged 88 in Los Angeles on June 3.
Arness only once ever disappointed a fan: Lady Bird Johnson said she was shocked her favorite actor was a Republican.

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