James MacArthur was an American actor who fought the “bad guys” in his famous role of ‘Detective Danny Williams’ in the TV series ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ Owing to his celebrity parents, he grew up in the midst of theater stalwarts and Hollywood stars. Acting was an obvious career choice for him. However, he did not get it through lineage, since he was an adopted child. This American entertainer charmed the public for almost 4 decades with his boyish looks, his golden, wavy hair, and his perfect timing. He has a broad variety of roles to his credit, from that of a troubled teenager to squeaky-clean ‘Disney’ characters and eventually that of a detective in one of the longest-running TV series. He lived a fulfilling life and died at the age of 72.
Childhood & Early Life
James was born on December 8, 1937, in Los Angeles, California. He was just 7 months old when the “First Lady of American Theatre”, Helen Hayes, and her famous playwright husband, Charles MacArthur, (famous for his collaborative work with Ben Hecht), adopted him and brought him to their home, ‘Pretty Penny,’ by the Hudson River in New York.
He went to ‘Solebury School,’ a private school in Buck County, Pennsylvania, and did notably well in sports and drama. At the tender age of 11, he had already felt the exhilaration of professional theater by appearing in a play in the ‘Theatre Guild on the Air’ radio series (1948), alongside his mother.
Noted American actor, director, and writer Lillian Gish was his godmother, and he grew up among other big names such as actor-journalist Robert Benchley, John Barrymore from the Barrymore family of actors, and famous comedian and mime artist Harpo Marx.
In 1949, only after a year of him sharing the stage with his mother, he made his own stage debut as ‘Will Hughes’ in Emlyn Williams’s play ‘The Corn is Green’ at the ‘Olney Theatre’ in Maryland.
He studied history at ‘Harvard University’ but dropped out in his second year to devote all his time to his acting career.
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Before his final year at school, in 1955, James made his first appearance on TV as a teenage rebel, ‘Hal Ditmar,’ in an episode of John Frankenheimer’s TV series ‘Climax!’ titled ‘Deal a Blow.’ This episode was later reprised as a feature film named ‘The Young Stranger’ (1957), starring MacArthur in the same character. The film earned him a nomination for ‘The Most Promising Newcomer’ at the 1958 ‘BAFTA Awards’ ceremony.
His university life at ‘Harvard’ did not pause his acting career. He acted in ‘Disney’s ‘The Light in the Forest’ during the summer of his college year.
In 1959, however, James dropped out of ‘Harvard.’ He worked on three more ‘Disney’ productions in the next 2 years: as ‘Rudi Matt’ in ‘Third Man on the Mountain’ (1959), as ‘David Balfour’ in ‘Kidnapped’ (1960), and as ‘Fritz Robinson’ in ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ (1960).
In 1960, he made his ‘Broadway’ debut as ‘Aaron Jablonski’ in the comedy ‘Invitation to a March’ with Jane Fonda. It won him the 1961 ‘Theatre World Award’ for the ‘Best New Actor.’
Between the years 1960 and 1967, he appeared in many TV plays, TV series, and movies of marked importance. According to him, his role of a sociopathic killer in an episode of ‘The Untouchables’ was his first “mature” role. He played a young doctor in ‘The Interns’ (1962), a struggling young graduate in ‘Spencer’s Mountain’ (1963), and a spoiled young son of a wealthy businessman sent to fight the Japanese in ‘Cry of Battle’ (1963).
In 1968, his performance as a traveling preacher in a Clint Eastwood-starrer “spaghetti western” movie named ‘Hang ′Em High’ made producer Leonard Freeman cast James in the iconic role of ‘Detective Danny Williams’ in ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ It ran from 1968 to 1980, making it one of the longest-running TV shows. Out of the 12 seasons of ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ ‘Detective Danny’ was part of 11. He quit the show in 1979.
In the later years of his career, he also appeared a lot on TV, playing character roles in series such as ‘The Love Boat’ (1977), ‘Vega$’ (1978), and ‘Murder, She Wrote’ (1984) and two TV films, ‘The Night the Bridge Fell Down’ (1983) and ‘Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story’ (1980).
He was first recognized as a promising newcomer for his role of ‘Fritz,’ the oldest son of a Swiss family struggling through life, in ‘Disney’s ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ (1960).
His most noteworthy role was, however, that of ‘Danny Williams’ in ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ which made him a legend.
Family & Personal Life
James got married to actor Joyce Bulifant on November 2, 1958, and had two children: Mary MacArthur and Charles MacArthur. The marriage ended in a divorce in 1968.
In 1968, on the set of ‘The Angry Breed,’ he met a young actor named Melody Patterson. She became his second wife. They married in 1970 and divorced in 1977.
He got married for the last time in 1984, to former LGPA golfer Helen Beth Duntz. They stayed married till his death due to cancer in 2010. They had a son, Jamie.
James MacArthur has left behind four children. Three of them were from his first and third marriages, but the identity of his fourth child’s mother was never made public.
James’s elder sister and the MacArthurs’s biological daughter, Mary MacArthur, died of bulbar polio at the age of 19. James was only 11 years old then.
In the movie ‘The Truth about Spring’ (1965), which was a light romantic comedy, James gave Hayley Mills her first on-screen kiss.
Certain rumors about his biological identity were fanned from time to time. It was said that Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur were friends with James’s parents and that it was kept a secret to conceal their identity.