Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 3rd, 2011
James Arness, a giant of an actor at 6′ 7″ and best known for playing Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for 20 years, has died. He was 88.
Arness passed away of natural causes Friday, June 3, 2011, the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter note online.
Arness actually played the monstrous “Thing” in The Thing from Another World (1951).
Cryptofictionwise, Arness is also recalled as the star of the classic 1954 film Them!. Arness played the FBI agent (pictured below).
Them!, Warner Brothers’ highest grossing film of 1954, is recalled as the first modern American motion picture to have “monsters” generated by mutations due to nuclear activity. Tests of nuclear bombs in the New Mexico proving grounds are found to be the source of sightings and killings caused by giant ants in the desert. In the beginning of the movie, the usual scenario occurs where local residents begin to have some extraordinary encounters that are not believed by the authorities. Even a sinister government coverup is shown, with an eyewitness not being released from a mental hospital to keep him quiet. In the end, of course, the oridinary folks are correct, and something bizarre comes to a head underneath Los Angeles.
This movie created science fiction film motifs that live on in modern cinema (e.g. Alien, AVP, Evolution, Terminator 2) and on television (e.g. The X-Files, Surface) through the use of storm tunnels, flame-throwers, top-secret files, and frightening monsters caused by human atomic mistakes.
Them! included significant actors, such as James Arness and James Whitmore. The movie also has appearances by the future soon-to-be-discovered Davy Crockett, actor Fess Parker playing a confused eyewitness (“Alan Crotty”) who reports some winged giant ants as flying saucers. Look closely and you will see a youthful not-yet-Spock Leonard Nimoy as an Air Force sergeant. They were new to acting when Them! first screened.
Arness’s death comes a year after his brother, “Mission Impossible” actor Peter Graves, died of a heart attack at age 83. Graves (see Cryptomundo obit for Graves here) was famed, in his own right, for his crypto-cinema links. Graves was the narrator and on-camera in-field investigator in the documentary, The Mysterious Monsters (1976).
Arness (formerly “Aurness”) was born May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the son of Ruth (née Duesler), a journalist, and Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a Norwegian who worked in business. Arness was a descendant of German and Norwegian immigrants. Starting out as a radio announcer in Minnesota in 1945, he eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he landed his big break in 1947, starring opposite Loretta Young in the film The Farmer’s Daughter.
During his career, Arness befriended John Wayne who was instrumental in helping him score the two decades long role of Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.”
“Matt is very human and has all the failings and drives common to anyone who is trying to do a difficult job the best he knows how,” John Wayne once said, according to the LA Times.
From 1976 through 1979, Arness starred in the television miniseries “How the West Was Won.” His last TV series, the police drama “Big Jim McLain,” aired in the early 1980s.
He is survived by his wife Janet, two sons and six grandchildren.
Goodbye to James Arness.