Famed Them Actor Dies

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.


Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

6 Responses to “Famed Them Actor Dies”

  1. Lee Finney via Facebook responds:

    that sucks

  2. j stewart responds:

    You can find all of these oldies but goodies on Netflix..I watch them constantly. James Arness will be missed.

  3. fuzzy responds:

    A classic “good-guy” Lawman, anchoring the weekly melee by an entire array of talented supporting actors…

    I used to listen to “Gunsmoke” on the Radio (remember radio? Do you know who played Matt Dillon on that show?), and I was really disappointed that that actor didn’t continue on the TV version… until I saw James Arness!

    R.I.P, Mr. Arness.

  4. fuzzy responds:

    Radio’s Matt Dillon was played by actor William Conrad.

  5. John Thompson via Facebook responds:

    Will be missed

  6. fukudasan responds:

    Amazing . . . I have a copy of this at home and have watched it so many times . . . but _never_ noticed Leonard Nimoy.

    Time to watch it again with sharper eyes, methinks . . .

    And of course, very sad to hear about James Arness. I thought he was great in “THEM!”

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