James Arness was a bit of a beach bum before Gunsmoke
He spent the late '40s surfing and squatting on the sand.
The Farmer's Daughter was meant to be his big break, but instead, James Arness opted for surfing breaks. The Minnesota native nabbed a role in the 1947 Loretta Young flick because it was about a Swedish-American woman. Arness had a knack for Scandinavian accents, so he ended up playing one of her brothers.
The towering Arness was new to Los Angeles, having headed west after recuperating from a war injury. A German machine gun had shattered the bones in his leg during the Battle of Anzio in Italy, back in '44. The wound had left him with a shorter limb, slight limp, and lifelong pain. But his fascinating World War II experience is a story for another time.
After The Farmer's Daughter hit theaters, Arness found casting calls far more crowded. Eager men were flooding Hollywood after the war. Competition was fierce. Arness retreated home to the Land of Lakes to visit his mom, who had recently married.
Arness drifted back to California, and took a job setting up bowling pins in an alley on Balboa Island, surfing in his off time. This was the summer of '47. The lure of the waves became louder than his acting ambition. He forgot about booking roles. Instead, the 6' 7" guy headed south to San Onofre beach. He picked up odd jobs here and there, and collected unemployment checks that came to him following The Farmer's Daughter. He slept in his car or on the beach. He followed the waves.
"Our mecca was San Onofre, and we named our fast-growing crowd the San Onofre Surf Club," Arness wrote in his 2001 autobiography. "We just camped on the beach and spent a few days catching the big ones."
San Onofre was on the land of Camp Pendleton, and U.S. Marines had beach houses along the shore. Arness and his surfing buddies began squatting in the unused Marine bungalows, dragging in furniture from a dump. Eventually, a Marine showed up and ordered the squatters to clear out in two hours. The Surf Club moved back outdoors but stayed on the beach, being sure to keep tidy. They shared bottles of Muscatel wine and idled.
"Just taking in the sun and surfboarding as we pleased was enough for us," Arness recalled. "It was beautiful there, an unforgettable experience."
One day, a car tore down the beach in haste, kicking up a cloud of sand. An old friend of Arness hopped out with a box of letters. He dumped a pile of fan mail on Arness, which had poured in following The Farmer's Daughter.
"He chewed me out for wasting my time lying on the beach when I could be having a career in movies," Arness said. "My beach bum friends had not known about my acting."
This passionate pal, Ed Hampel, urged Arness to come with him to an audition. He landed a role in the play. The rest was history.
It wasn't all for naught. Years later, in 1970, his son, Rolf Aurness (that's the original spelling of the family name), became World Surfing Champion.