In a career spanning more than four decades, James MacArthur developed a body of work which is wonderfully dynamic in both scope and range. Portraying everything from crazed killer to stalwart defender of law and order, frustrated teenager to cynical senior supervisor, he has appeared in numerous films, television programs, and stage productions since his career officially began back in 1955. Although he had been performing in parts during summer stock productions since 1949, making his stage debut in “The Corn Is Green”, his real acting career did not begin until he starred as the complex and misunderstood teenager in John Frankenheimer’s “Deal a Blow”. Broadcast live on the Climax! (1954) television anthology series, the program told the story of “Hal Ditmar”, a relatively ordinary youngster on the verge of manhood who finds himself caught up in a snowballing world of trouble with his parents, the law, and virtually everyone in authority after a minor infraction of the rules at a movie theater. The story was so well-crafted and MacArthur’s performance so compelling that a year later it was remade by Frankenheimer into his first theatrical release, The Young Stranger (1957). The movie received much critical acclaim and earned its star a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Film Award nomination as Most Promising Newcomer (1958) and won a film festival in Switzerland. Next up was the Disney movie of Conrad Richter’s novel, The Light in the Forest (1958). Set in the late 18th century in the burgeoning United States, it told the tale of a young man who had been kidnapped by Indians as a baby and raised as the son of a chief. A respected and accepted member of the tribe, the boy, known as “True Son”, is ripped away from the only life he has ever known and forced to return to his biological parents due to a treaty signed by people of whom he has no knowledge and who cannot possibly have any interest in his individual welfare. His subsequent struggles to find out exactly where he fits in and to gain the trust and sanction of his new community are told in a way which is as wrenching and relevant to today’s society as it was then. The corollaries between this story and the custody battles which seem to occur with alarming frequency in our own time are strong and thought provoking. It seems the question regarding when in a child’s life his biological parentage begins to be outweighed by the environment in which he is being raised is one which has yet to be answered. The depth with which MacArthur imbued the role makes his performance both truthful and unforgettable. Before its release in theaters, The Light in the Forest (1958) was preceded by three more appearances in live teleplays, including another outstanding performance in the Studio One in Hollywood (1948) production of “Tongues of Angels” as “Ben Adams”, a young man with a devastating stuttering problem who pretends to be a deaf/mute in order to hide his infirmity. A string of meaty roles quickly followed, including the Disney classic films Kidnapped (1960), Third Man on the Mountain (1959) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960); television programs such as The Untouchables (1959), Bus Stop (1961) and Wagon Train (1957); and two more live teleplays. As sociopathic killer and racketeer “Johnny Lubin” in The Untouchables (1959) episode “Death for Sale”, MacArthur for the first time portrayed an unsympathetic character. The heart-stopping realism of his performance provided definitive proof of his abilities as a multifaceted and talented actor. In what he described in one interview as his first “mature” role, he then appeared as a doctor-in-the-making in The Interns (1962), turning in a fine performance as a somewhat naive young man who grows up rather quickly when presented with several tough choices and life-defining situations. After that came more television, the underrated yet stirring film, Cry of Battle (1963), and Spencer’s Mountain (1963), the highly successful precursor to the popular television series The Waltons (1971). Once again, in both films, MacArthur played young men whose lives are changed by circumstances beyond their control and who must dig deep within themselves to find the inner strength and fortitude to deal with those events. Having by now amassed an impressive list of film and television credits in addition to stage performances on Broadway and other venues, MacArthur then turned to the pivotal role of “Ensign Ralston” in the tense and nerve-wracking Cold War yarn, The Bedford Incident (1965). His performance as the eager to-please and earnest young officer carried a subtlety and intensity hard to believe of someone not yet thirty years old. The role of “William Ashton” in the light-hearted romance, The Truth About Spring (1965) came next, almost immediately followed by yet another coming-of-age performance as “Lt. Weaver” in the blockbuster WWII saga, Battle of the Bulge (1965). Westerns and war dramas predominated the next phase of MacArthur’s career with appearances in television programs such as Branded (1965), 12 O’Clock High (1964), Gunsmoke (1955), Combat! (1962), Hondo (1967), Bonanza (1959), and Death Valley Days (1952), in addition to the films Ride Beyond Vengeance (1966), “Mosby’s Marauders” (1966) and Hang ‘Em High (1968). It was his appearance in this last movie that would ultimately lead him into the role of “Dan Williams” on Hawaii Five-O (1968). When Leonard Freeman found himself looking for a replacement to play the complex sidekick to Jack Lord’s powerful “Steve McGarrett”, he went looking for the young actor he remembered from just two or three days’ work on his low-budget spaghetti Western. The juxtaposition of MacArthur’s still-boyish good looks with his ability to bring a convincing toughness and sincerity to the role made him one of the best-remembered and well-admired actors of 1960s and 1970s popular television. Even today, more than twenty years after the program stopped production, it is broadcast in syndication in markets all over the world. Its “Book ‘im, Danno” catchphrase is still as much a part of our popular culture as that famed line from another show of the same era: “Beam me up, Scotty”. Departing “Five-O” prior to its 12th and final season, MacArthur’s appearances became less frequent, yet still memorable. He was featured in such popular television shows as The Love Boat (1977), Vega$ (1978), Fantasy Island (1977), and Murder, She Wrote (1984) and starred in two made-for-television movies: Irwin Allen’s The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1983) and Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story (1980). His poignant portrayal of hapless “Walt Stomer” in the latter provided a fine example that his skills as an actor had not waned in the 25 years since that first television appearance. He concentrated on the stage for a while then, performing in productions such as “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “A Bedfull of Foreigners” and “Love Letters”, as well as the occasional live appearance at charity and celebrity sporting events. In 1998, after nearly a decade away from television screens, he took up the role of “Frank Del Rio” in the Family Channel movie Storm Chasers: Revenge of the Twister (1998). With the new century, MacArthur returned to a more active professional schedule, continuing to make a number of personal appearances to sign autographs and greet fans, as well as several speaking engagements such as northeast Ohio’s “One Book, Two Counties: An Evening With James MacArthur”, The Cinema Audio Society Annual Awards Banquet and AdventureCon in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition, he has been featured in several television specials and interview programs, including Emme & Friends, Entertainment Tonight (1981), Inside TVLand, and Christopher Closeup. The increasing popularity of the DVD market has seen the re-release of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) with a new behind-the-scenes documentary narrated by MacArthur and a lengthy on-screen interview covering many aspects of his career. Planned for re-release in July 2003, the 1956 version of Anastasia (1956) is expected to include an on-screen interview with MacArthur discussing his mother, Helen Hayes, and her work in that movie. April 2003 marked his return to the stage as “Father Madison” in Joe Moore’s original play Dirty Laundry. On 6 November 2003, the Hawaii International Film Festival chose James MacArthur and Hawaii Five-O (1968) as the recipient of their annual “Film in Hawaii” award, an honor both well-deserved and especially significant, coming as it did from the people and the State of Hawaii. Plans were being made to feature MacArthur in a new television series set in the Hawaiian Islands, though nothing more definitive had ever been arranged.
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