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Early Life and Education
Born as James King Aurness on the 26th May 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA to Rolf Cirkler Aurness and Ruth Duesler. James is of Norwegian and German ancestry; his last name, originally Aurness was changed when he became an actor – his grandfather, Peter Aurness, emigrated from Norway in 1887. He wasn’t alone growing up, as he had a younger brother, Peter, who also became a famous actor. Raised as Methodists, James was taught to earn a living from an early age. While in high school he was a courier for a jewelry wholesaler. This however affected his high school performance in a negative way, but eventually he managed to earn a diploma in 1942.
He joined the army in 1943 but his desires were quenched once he discovered that at 6 feet and 7 inches he was too tall to be a fighter pilot. He was sent to Fort Snelling Minnesota in March 1943, becoming a rifleman, and in the Battle of Anzio he was severely wounded in his right leg, as a result of which he was transferred to the US Army 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. He couldn’t return to battle because of the severity of the wounds, and was honorably discharged on the 29th January 1945, but not before receiving the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and several other decorations, including the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.
Hitchhiking to Hollywood
Before becoming an actor, James worked as a radio announcer for WLOL in his native Minneapolis. However, two years later, James decided to leave his post and try to succeed as an actor, and believe it or not, he hitchhiked to Hollywood where he signed with RKO Pictures.
Acting Debut and the Role of Matt Dillon
James soon made his acting debut in the film “Farmer’s Daughter” in 1947, and continued with minor film roles such as Ray in “Roses Are Red” the same year, “The Man from Texas” in 1948 and “Wagon Master” in 1950. Two years later he appeared next to John Wayne in the crime-drama film “Big Jim McLain”, and the next year also starred next to John Wayne in the romantic war-drama film “Hondo”. In 1955 he was chosen for the part of Matt Dillon in the TV western series “Gunsmoke”, a character that he subsequently portrayed for 20 years in 635 episodes of the Golden Globe Award-nominated series, as well as a three times nominee for the Primetime Emmy Award. The particular role became the hallmark of his career, and he was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to television. He repeated the role of Matt Dillon in the television films “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge” in 1987, “Gunsmoke” The Last Apache” in 1990, “Gunsmoke: To the Last Man” (1992), “Gunsmoke: The Long Ride” (1993), and “Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice” in 1994, which was his last screen appearance.
Career After “Gunsmoke”
Once the original TV series ended in 1975, James started searching for new acting engagements, and soon after was chosen for the part of Zeb Macahan in another western series “How the West Was Won” (1976-1979), and from 1981 to 1982 portrayed Detective Jim McClain in the TV series “McClain’s Law”. He also portrayed Jim Bowie in the television film “The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory” in 1987, and Thomas Dunson in another television film “Red River” (1988).
The Real Marshal
Because of his popularity as a TV Marshal, James was named an Honorary US Marshal, and was given the Marshal’s badge and a salute on the 20th June 2003 by the Los Angeles mayor, the 15 City Council members and the City Attorney. James added another recognition to his career that lasted over 45 years.
Well, his successful career as an actor certainly contributed to his overall net worth. Let’s see into it. According to authoritative sources, James’ net worth in 2011 was estimated at $10 million. He never wanted to expose his private life to the public world, and he let his career speak for himself.
Life After Retirement and Death
Following his retirement in 1994, James left the public eye, but in 2001 he published an autobiography entitled “James Arness: An Autobiography”. James led a quiet life until his death in 2011 at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles California USA. He passed away of natural causes at 88 years old. His remains were buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Relationships and Family Life
At the time of his death, James was married to his second wife, Janet Surtees; the couple married in 1978. Before Janet, James was married to Virginia Chapman from 1948 until 1963; the couple had three children, Rolf, Craig, and Jenny Lee, who died of suicide in 1975. He also became the adoptive father to Virginia’s son Craig.