For many people, the name James MacArthur immediately invokes a jumble of images: a plane streaking across the sky; the swinging hips of a young girl dancing a hula; the flashing light of a police car, speeding through the night; the Aloha Tower; Punchbowl Cemetery, and, of course, Jack Lord posed majestically on a hotel balcony. They begin to hum the Hawaii Five-0 theme, which they had long thought forgotten but which had merely been lying dormant amongst old memories, and once again, they can hear Jack Lord snap, "Book 'em Danno."
So great was the popularity of the series, and of MacArthur's character, that it is easy to overlook the fact that he had a flourishing career long before the advent of Hawaii Five-0, and remained active in movies and TV and on the stage long after its demise.
He was adopted as an infant by playwright Charles MacArthur and his wife, actress Helen Hayes, he grew up in Nyack, New York, along with the MacArthurs' biological daughter, Mary, also an actress. He was educated at Allen Stevenson School in New York, and later at Solebury School in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he starred in basketball, football and baseball. In his final year at Solebury he played guard on the football team, captained the basketball team, was elected president of his class as well as of the Student Government and the Drama Club, rewrote the school's constitution, edited the school paper, The Scribe, and played Scrooge in a local presentation of A Christmas Carol.
While at Solebury, Jim started dating a fellow student, Joyce Bulifant. They were married in November, 1958 and divorced nine years later.
Jim was growing up around the greatest literary and theatrical talent of the time. Lillian Gish was his Godmother and his parents' guests included such personalities as Ben Hecht, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, Beatrice Lillie, John Barrymore and John Steinbeck. This environment would present him with opportunities and challenges not experienced by other young people.
His first radio role was on Theatre Guild of the Air, in 1948. The Theatre Guild of the Air> was the premiere radio program of its day, producing one-hour plays that were performed in front of a live audience of 800. Helen Hayes accepted a role in one of the plays, which also had a small part for a child. Her son was asked if he would like to do it, and agreed.
He made his stage debut at Olney, Maryland, in 1949, with a two week stint in The Corn is Green. His sister, Mary, was in the play and telephoned their mother to request that James go to Olney to be in it with her. The following summer, he repeated the same role at Dennis, Massachusetts, and his theatrical career was underway. In 1954, he played John Day in Life With Father with Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney. However, young James did not get a fast-track into important Broadway productions just for being Helen Hayes' son. Instead, he received his training in summer stock.
He also worked as a set painter, lighting director and chief of the parking lot. During a Helen Hayes festival at the Falmouth Playhouse on Cape Cod, he had a few walk-on parts. He also helped the theatre electrician and, in fact, grew so interested that he was allowed to stay on after Miss Hayes' plays had ended. As a result, he lighted the show for Barbara Bel Geddes in The Little Hut and for Gloria Vanderbilt in The Swan. When he visited Paris with his mother as a member of The Skin of Our Teeth Company, he was in charge of making thunder backstage with a four-by-eight sheet of metal.
In 1955, at the age of 18, he was chosen to play Hal Ditmar in the TV play Deal a Blow. The play was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred MacDonald Carey, Phyllis Thaxter and Edward Arnold. In his scenes with the veterans, James showed that he was more than capable of matching experience with ability, and his "sensitive and intelligent" portrayal of the misunderstood teenager, teetering on the brink of delinquency, was lauded by critics and viewers alike.
In 1956, Frankenheimer directed the movie version of the play, which was renamed The Young Stranger, and James MacArthur was again chosen for the starring role. Once again, his performance was critically acclaimed, and earned him a nomination in the Most Promising Newcomer category at the 1958 BAFTA awards.
During summer breaks from Harvard University, where he was studying history, he made The Light in the Forest and Third Man on the Mountain, for Walt Disney. Then, deciding to make acting his full time career, he dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year, and made two more Disney movies, Kidnapped and Swiss Family Robinson. These movies are now regarded as 'classics,' and are still popular more than forty years later. In February, 2003, Conrad Richter's novel The Light in the Forest was one of the books selected for Ohio's One Book, Two Counties project. Jim was invited to be a guest speaker, and spoke of how the book was turned into the film, and his experiences making the movie. When wiss Family Robinson was released in DVD format, he was asked to provide background commentary and other 'bonus' material for the DVD.
He made his Broadway debut in 1960, playing opposite Jane Fonda in Invitation to a March. For his performance, he received a Theater World Award. Then came roles in Under the Yum Yum Tree, The Moon Is Blue, John Loves Mary (with his wife at the time, Joyce Bulifant), Barefoot in the Park and Murder at the Howard Johnson's.
He then went on to star in such movies as The Interns, Spencer's Mountain, The Truth About Spring and Cry of Battle, as well as in the rather less successful The Love-Ins and The Angry Breed.
On the set of The Angry Breed, in 1968, Jim met Melody Patterson, who was to become the second Mrs. James MacArthur. They were married on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, in July, 1970, and divorced several years later.)
In 1963, he was a runner up in the 'Top New Male Personality' category of the Golden Laurel Awards.
Between movie and theatre roles, Jim was also much in demand for television guest appearances, which included parts in Studio One, G.E. Theatre, Bus Stop, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Eleventh Hour, The Great Adventure, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Great Adventure, Combat, The Virginian, Twelve O'Clock High, Tarzan and a particularly chilling performance as baby-faced opium dealer 'Johnny Lubin' in The Untouchables episode, Death For Sale.
Though not all his movie characters were 'starring roles,' and some of them were quite brief, for the most part they were pivotal to the plot. His role in The Bedford Incident was that of a young ensign who became so rattled by the needling of his Captain (Richard Widmark), that he accidentally fired an atomic weapon, thus (we are given to understand) starting World War III.
In The Battle of the Bulge he again played the role of a young and inexperienced officer. This time, however, the officer found courage and a sense of responsibility.
It was his brief but memorable appearance in the Clint Eastwood movie, Hang 'Em High, that eventually led him to the role of Dan Williams in Hawaii Five-0.
In 1967, Leonard Freeman, the producer Hang 'Em High, produced the pilot for a new television cop show, Hawaii Five-0. Before the pilot went to air, it was shown to a test audience. The show was well received, but the audience did not like the actor playing the role of Dan Williams. Freeman remembered the actor who had appeared as the traveling preacher in Hang 'Em High, who came on the set, did the scene in one take and was gone. He called James MacArthur and offered him the role of Dan Williams.
Hawaii Five-0, one of the most successful shows in television history, ran for twelve years.
Leaving Hawaii Five-0 at the end of its eleventh season, Jim returned to the theatre in The Lunch Hour with Cybill Shepherd.
He appeared in A Bedfull of Foreigners in Chicago in 1984, and in Michigan in 1985. He followed this with The Hasty Heart, before taking a year out of showbusiness. In 1987, he returned to the stage in The Foreigner, then played Mortimer in the national tour of Arsenic and Old Lace with Jean Stapleton, Marion Ross and Larry Storch.
In 1989, he followed another stint in The Foreigner with Love Letters and, in 1990 – 1991, A Bedfull of Foreigners, this time in Las Vegas.
Since leaving Hawaii Five-0, Jim has also guest-starred on such TV shows as Murder, She Wrote, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Vega$, as well as in the mini series Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story and The Night the Bridge Fell Down, and in the 1998 TV movie Stormchasers: Revenge of the Twister, with Kelly McGillis.
Throughout his career, Jim has also found time for various other ventures. During 1959 – 1960, between movie and theatrical successes, he was a partner with actor James Franciscus and Alan Ladd Jr. in a Beverly Hills telephone answering service; in June 1972 he directed The Honolulu Community Theatre in a production of his father's play The Front Page, and for a while in the 1990s he was part owner of Senior World publication as well as writing the occasional celebrity interview.
In the year 2000, he joined the ranks of those celebrities who have been awarded their own 'sidewalk star' in Palm Springs.
These days, Jim enjoys spending time with his third wife, H. B. Duntz, his four children and six grandchildren. He continues to make personal appearances at conventions and 'Collectors' Shows,' to greet fans and sign autographs, and at celebrity sporting events. A keen golfer, he was the winner of the 2002 Frank Sinatra Invitational Charity Golf Tournament.
He is still much in demand for television and radio specials and interview programs. His most recent appearances include spots on Entertainment Tonight, Christophers Closeup and the British BBC 5 Radio obituary programme, Brief Lives, in which he paid a moving tribute to late Hawaii Five-0 cast mate, Kam Fong.
In April, 2003, Jim traveled to Honolulu for a brief return to the stage in a cameo role in Joe Moore's play Dirty Laundry, appearing as a priest accused of molestation.
With many of his films now being released in DVD format, Jim has found a new audience, as he has provided interviews and 'behind the scenes' commentary to be included as 'extras' with DVDs of not only his own movies, but also those of his mother, Helen Hayes.
Rumors persist, about another attempt at a movie version of Hawaii Five-0, leaving die-hard fans with the hope that Jim will once more be seen in the role that he made famous. He comments, "I certainly would not be playing Danno but perhaps some sort of character ... maybe an old man leering at the young girls on the beach!!"
Jim is also developing a one man show based on his life and career, which he has tested at a couple of venues near his home, with encouraging results.