He was best known to most Americans as Marshall Matt Dillon, the lead character of Gunsmoke, a TV show he starred in for an unparalleled 20 years. But to those reading this blog, and to horror fans in general, it is likely that he is most remembered for two motion pictures in particular: the giant ant epic Them! (1954) and of course, Howard Hawks' classic The Thing from Another World (1951), in which he memorably portrayed the titular Thing. Arness was an American original, going from the wartorn battlefields of Europe, to Hollywood, to television immortality. He passed away earlier this month, just a week after his 88th birthday, but to genre fans he remains just as awe-inspiring as ever.
A big part of the awe probably came from his sheer size. The man stood 6-foot-7, which no doubt helped him land more than a few choice parts in Westerns and action films in general. Unfortunately, it also prohibited him from fulfilling his dream of serving as a naval fighter pilot in World War II, since the height limit was 6-foot-2. Nevertheless, he did serve his country gallantly, as a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. In fact, he was severely wounded in battle in Anzio, Italy in January 1944, capping off a tour of duty that resulted in the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Victory Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge.
He was born James Aurness (he would later drop the "u" for Hollywood) to German and Norwegian parents on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis. Far from the glitz and glamor of Tinseltown, his youth was spent unloading railway boxcars and logging. It was only after being honorably discharged from service in World War II at age 22, permanently injured and suffering chronic leg pain, that he first made his way to Hollywood. By putting out his thumb and hitchhiking.
After the minor name alteration, he made his screen debut in 1947 alongside Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter. Probably due to his size, Westerns were a no-brainer for him right off the bat, his larger-than-life presence being a perfect fit--usually for the part of the heavy. However, it would be in the early 1950s that he would land the two roles that made him into something of a minor horror icon.
In 1951, he was cast as the bizarre and terrifying plant-like creature in Howard Hawks groundbreaking sci-fi/horror gem The Thing from Another World. He doesn't speak a word in the film, and he's covered in elaborate makeup and costuming, but much like Boris Karloff and Glenn Strange before him, he manages to exude terror in spite of--or perhaps because of--these limitations. Although most consider John Carpenter's 1982 remake to have eclipsed the original to an extent, with Rob Bottin's mind-blowing special effects overshadowing the more primitive Arness incarnation of the monster, the film and his performance in it are still cherished to this day by fans of the silver age of horror.
A couple years later, he once again starred in a sci-fi/horror classic, although this time he got to actually speak. Cast as FBI agent Robert Graham, sent to New Mexico to investigate some strange goings on in the desert, his role is one of the more memorable in Gordon Douglas' Them!, a tale of gigantic ants mutated by atomic radiation. Much more frightening than its premise might indicate, Them! is a landmark of 1950s b-movie cinema, perhaps even more highly regarded than The Thing from Another World. Having appeared in both films would be quite the feather in the cap of any B-movie actor, but Arness was only getting started.
A year after Them!, he would land the part that would make him a household name--not on the big screen, but on the burgeoning boob tube. At the recommendation of none other than John Wayne, he was given the lead role in the TV series Gunsmoke. All told, he would play the role of Matt Dillon--a heroic cowboy at last--for 20 years straight, a TV record that still stands. And if you add in TV movie revivals in the 1980s and 1990s, he played Dillon in five different decades.
Arness would ride the Gunsmoke train for the remainder of his career, before finally retiring in his 70s. His legacy firmly established, he would always be known as one of the most beloved of the TV cowboys--perhaps the most beloved of them all. And yet anyone who grew up a horror and sci-fi fan in the atomic era will likely remember him best as that hulking silhouette in the corridors of an antarctic research base. James Arness is no longer with us, but The Thing, as we discovered, never truly dies.
Keep watching the skies...
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