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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,164


This is the grave of James MacArthur.

Born in 1937 in Los Angeles, MacArthur was the son of two legends–the playwright Charles MacArthur and the actress Helen Hayes. They adopted him shortly after his birth. They lived in New York mostly when he was growing up and he went to very good schools while also starring in sports. Not surprisingly, he started acting as a kid too, starring in high school plays and the like. In fact, his mom had brought him in for a radio play in 1948, so he was groomed for it. I mean, if Lillian Gish is your godmother, how can you not act?

In any case, MacArthur took to acting pretty well. Of course it hardly hurt that he was a rich kid coming from a couple of legends, but if you can’t act, you can’t act. And he could act. He wasn’t his mom; who was. But he was good. He also got involved in stage lighting and had some early career success with that, doing some of the work for his mother’s theater festival that attracted big name talent.

MacArthur came to public consciousness in 1957, when John Frankenheimer directed The Young Stranger. MacArthur had debuted this play (under the title Deal a Blow) and so Frankenheimer brought him in for the movie too. Costarring with Kim Hunter, this helped make the career for all three. It wasn’t just MacArthur’s first film, it was also Frankenheimer’s. Disney soon signed MacArthur to a three-film deal and he ended up starring in four actually. The most famous is Swiss Family Robinson. The others are The Light in the Forest (about a white kid raised by the Indians; I can’t imagine this isn’t cringe), Third Man on the Mountain, and Kidnapped. By this time, he was enrolled at Harvard but he dropped out to go into the movies full time.

But MacArthur’s career didn’t really take off. He was just a guy, someone who was a reliable enough and good looking enough guy that you could cast him in any number of roles on the massive amount of one-off TV shows of the era. I mean, that’s completely fine. We need those people. They are the mainstay of almost all productions. It’s just that given what was expected, it wasn’t quite that. He had minor roles in a lot of movies and major roles in a lot of TV stuff. He followed his parents into the theater too and did a bunch of plays in the 60s.

We know MacArthur for one reason. He’s Danno from Hawaii Five-O. In that role, he was Jack Lord’s assistant on the procedural. He was in fact the second choice for the role, but audience testing rejected Tim O’Kelly as too young looking for the role. Somehow, Hawaii Five-O ran for 12 seasons. Really? 12? Why? This was from 1968 until 1980. Maybe the horrors of Reagan’s impending presidency finally killed the show, though it was a Republican family. MacArthur was bored by 1979 and left before the last season. He wanted to pursue something else in his life. In fact, it must be really tiresome for an actor to play the same role forever. Unless you are Hal Holbrook spending most of your career doing a single bit like he did with Mark Twain, one of the appeals of acting is to spend your life engaging in different characters. Of course, a nice paycheck helps cover for that, but after 11 years in one role that everyone was going to remember him for, he was done.

At this point, MacArthur just went back to his journeyman status. Need someone for an episode of Murder She Wrote? He’s your man. Or any other drama of the era. Fantasy Island? Check. The Love Boat? Oh you know it. Etc. He did have a pretty solid return to the stage in 1987 with a big traveling production of Arsenic and Old Lace where he co-starred with Maureen Stapleton.

At the end, MacArthur was in talks to appear in the CBS reboot of Hawaii Five-O. But he died of cancer before he could film it. Cancer is what took him out, in 2010 and at the age of 72.

James MacArthur is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other cast members of Hawaii Five-O, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Collect the whole set! Jack Lord’s ashes were scattered unfortunately. Kam Fong is in Honolulu and Richard Denning is in Makawao, Hawaii. The actors in that showed really leaned into the location I guess. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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