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Islander shares memories of family friend and neighbor, actor James Arness
If you don’t remember the television show “Gunsmoke,” with the colorful characters Matt Dillon, Chester, Miss Kitty and Doc, well, you’re young.
“Gunsmoke,” a weekly western series, which aired from 1955 to 1975, was one of the longest running prime-time series in network TV history. Its star, the handsome James Arness, who played the Marshall of Dodge City was just a regular guy though, according to longtime family friend and Islander, Carter Harrington.
Arness died June 3 at the age of 88. Harrington said he got the call at about 6:30 a.m. from Janet, Arness’s wife.
“They had the best marriage,” Harrington said. The couple had been married since 1978.
The Arness family was from Minneapolis originally, and the Harringtons moved west from Kansas. The two families met when they settled in California, where they became fast friends — like one big family. Harrington was 9 years old when he began his friendship with Craig, one of the Arness children. Arness was already filming “Gunsmoke.”
“He would take us to the studio, and we’d all run around,” Harrington said. “It was quite a thrill for 10-year-old kids, who still believed in cowboys and Indians.”
He said Dodge City was inside a studio building and all the stores were fake — storefronts that led to nowhere. Sometimes they filmed on location, but either way, he said it looked incredibly realistic on TV.
Although Arness was the marshal of Dodge City on “Gunsmoke,” his love was the ocean, Harrington said.
“He spent his whole life on the ocean, surfing, sailing,” Harrington said. “His favorite place was at Makaha beach on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu for the great surfing.”
Harrington said Arness left Minnesota for Santa Monica, Calif., with his buddy, John Horn, a lifeguard who was trying to get into acting. Arness started taking acting lessons at the insistence of Horn. An agent spotted Arness, who was 6 feet 8 inches tall.
Arness made his screen debut playing Loretta Young’s brother in a feature film called “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which won the Academy Award that year. Horn was really mad at the time, Harrington said, delivering bags of fan mail to Arness at the beach where he lived for a while in a 1952 convertible after the film’s success.
The actor John Wayne was originally offered “Gunsmoke,” but Harrington said Wayne wanted to remain in movies, so he recommended Arness for the role.
Harrington said Arness served in the army in World War II at the tender age of 18. He was shot in the leg by German machine gun fire during the 1944 invasion at Anzio, Italy.
“He had a slight limp, nothing bad, but he spent a year on a hospital ship and then the hospital,” he said.
Harrington thinks that Arness lived such a happy, balanced life, because he knew how to compartmentalize the different aspects of it. Sadly, two of his children, Craig and Jenny, preceded him in death, as did his brother, the actor Peter Graves, best known for the TV series “Mission: Impossible,” who died last year at the age of 83.
“The thing with ‘Gunsmoke’ was it had meaning, a moral message,” Harrington said. “It was a society. You’d come away knowing good is good and bad is bad. That’s why it was so successful.”
He said “everyone” ended up with a guest appearance on Gunsmoke, from Clint Eastwood to Burt Reynolds.
Harrington, his brother George, sister Deborah, son Travis (who was Arness’s godson) and his daughter, Kelly, all went to the funeral service for Arness in California. His final resting place is in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., where many stars have been laid to rest. He said there were no paparazzi at Arness’s funeral. It was a quiet affair, with about 100 people from all the different parts of Arness’s life.
The only character from “Gunsmoke” who is still living is Buck Taylor, who played Newby.
“He is the nicest guy,” Harrington said.
Harrington, who recently retired from a career as a commercial pilot, flew 240 missions over Vietnam off the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He and his wife, Susan, have lived on Mercer Island since 1991.
Now that he is retired, he plans to continue work he treasures, helping youth at risk.