He was the son of Rolf Aurness and Ruth Duesler who divorced in the 1940s.
He attended public schools and graduated from West High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1942. He studied for a year at Beloit College in Wisconsin before he was drafted into the United States Army during World War II as an infantryman. During the invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944, his right leg was shattered by machine-gun fire. He was hospitalized for a year and underwent surgeries to correct his leg which left a limp. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his services during World War II.
Father of Jenny Lee Arness (born May 23, 1950) and Rolf Aurness (born February 18, 1952), with Virginia Chapman. He also adopted her son from her first marriage, Craig (born 1946).
Did not attend the premiere of The Thing from Another World (1951) because he found his role as the Thing embarrassing. He often remarked that he felt his make up as "The Thing" made him look like a giant carrot.
Became U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" (1955) after John Wayne suggested Arness to play it. (Wayne himself, contrary to legend, was never offered the role.).
On Friday, June 20th, 2003, Arness was honored at Los Angeles City Hall by the mayor, the 15 City Council members and the City Attorney with a resolution honoring his life's work as an actor and 60-year resident of Los Angeles. The colorful resolution included a depiction of a U.S. Marshal's badge and a salute to his work as Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" (1955) and its over-20-year duration as TV's longest-running drama series. It also recalled his heroism during World War II and thanked him for "leaving us with one of the most telling and realistic portraits ever created of the brave, tall man in the saddle who tames a western town as he searches for justice and peace." Arness called it "the most wonderful day in his life" and says the resolution is now framed and in a prominent place in his home. He received a standing ovation that morning.
Inducted (as a cast member of "Gunsmoke" (1955)) into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1981.
Held the record for the longest continuous role portrayed by a single actor (20 years) on prime-time television (for Marshal Matt Dillon on the CBS western "Gunsmoke" (1955)), until Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane on "Cheers" (1982) and "Frasier" (1993)) tied the record in 2004 (at 20 years).
His status as a Republican disappointed Lady Bird Johnson, who was a fan of "Gunsmoke" (1955).
According to an article on TV westerns in Time magazine (March 30, 1959), Arness stood 6' 7", weighed 235 lbs, and had chest-waist-hips measurements of 48-36-36. However, Arness usually gave his own height as 6' 6" in interviews.
Made four movies with his close friend John Wayne during the 1950s. He was also originally cast in Rock Hudson's role opposite Wayne in The Undefeated (1969). Wayne personally recommended Arness for the lead role in "Gunsmoke" (1955), and filmed an introduction for the first episode.
His daughter and actress, Jenny Lee Arness, committed suicide on Monday, May 12th, 1975.
Confirmed in a 2001 interview that he is completely retired from acting because he no longer has the stamina for it.
He is survived by his wife, Janet Surtees of Brentwood, Los Angeles, California; son, Rolf Arness; stepson, Jim Surtees; six grandchildren, and a great grandchild. His adopted son, Craig, died in 2004 and his daughter Jenny died in 1975.