James Arness was a bit of a beach bum before Gunsmoke

He spent the late '40s surfing and squatting on the sand.

The Everett Collection

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.

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AndiLuz250 8 days ago
Always fun & interesting to learn about childhood heroes.
RobertReynolds 4 months ago
Interesting to read about the actors
JeffreyTrnavsky 4 months ago
I was a member of the San Onofre Surfing Club for many years, I never knew Arness was in it too long ago. This profile picture of me was when I was a member, and it is at San Onofre Beach, where the club still is.
gmail 4 months ago
Well it's about time Gilligan's Island is out.
Now, if METV can work on some others. I enjoy MASH, time for it to take a vacation. Rifleman, I like, vacation time.
Coldnorth gmail 3 months ago
I would like to see the ghost and mrs muir
Michael 4 months ago
Is this the basis of 1977's San Pedro Beach Bums?

I think there was an earlier show or two with a similar theme.
daDoctah 4 months ago
When Gunsmoke moved from radio to TV, Arness was chosen to replace William Conrad in the role of Matt Dillon. Conrad had a great voice, but it would have been a bit silly for someone of his build and appearance to be seen playing the square-shouldered marshall, and any horse that saw him heading their way probably ran off screaming.

Conrad also wouldn't have made a good beach bum. People would keep trying to save him by pushing him back into the water.
ncadams27 daDoctah 4 months ago
Think of Frank Cannon as a cowboy.
MrsPhilHarris 4 months ago
Great story. Sounds like a good time, but I want to know what happened to Ed Hampel.
Hilliard 4 months ago
Great story. I love Gunsmoke.
George57 4 months ago
I never knew this dude of James Arness. A fascinating insight about a great actor. Nice job MEtv for a backstory.
Andybandit 4 months ago
Good story. Glad he became an actor. He was great in Gunsmoke. It was on for so many years.
LoveMETV22 4 months ago
Thank you MeTV for another interesting story on James Arness.
LoveMETV22 4 months ago
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Runeshaper 4 months ago
Thank goodness for Ed Hampel! LOL
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