On and off screen, ‘Gunsmoke’ star James Arness was a friend to the Jews

James Arness, lead actor of “Gunsmoke” — one of the longest-running primetime TV series in history – passed away earlier today at the age of 88. Time Magazine in January 22, 1973 featured an interesting note about Arness’s philanthropy: he once donated his ranch to a Jewish institution:

In the Galilean-like foothills of California’s Santa Susana Mountains, the Brandeis Institute has become an internationally famous retreat (TIME, July 5, 1971) where young secular Jews’ learn the Jewish heritage of their forefathers. From its beginnings, Brandeis has had some generous friends; one was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who helped back Founder Shlomo Bardin when the institute began three decades ago. The newest benefactor is not Jewish at all but a Protestant. He is Actor James Arness, longtime star of Gunsmoke, whose 950-acre ranch is adjacent to Brandeis’ grounds. Arness has given Brandeis the entire ranch—$2 million worth of land, corrals, houses and barns. Said Bardin: “It was a splendid ecumenical act.

The Brandeis Institute was later renamed the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which merged in 2007 with Los Angeles’s University of Judaism to form American Jewish University. The university still maintains the Brandeis-Bardin campus.

“Gunsmoke” was before my time, but thanks to a childhood squandered in front of the TV, I fondly recall this episode, “This Golden Land,” with guest star Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss plays Gearshon Gorofsky, a fiery young Orthodox Jewish immigrant whose brother, Semel, is murdered out West. Gershon seeks revenge, but his sagely father urges restraint based on Talmudic principles. Watch the opening scene of the episode here:

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