James Arness and Janet Surtees: Looking Back at the 'Gunsmoke' Actor's Life, Career and Love Story 


Legendary actor James Arness will forever be remembered for playing Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas on the long-running Western television series Gunsmoke. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota as James King Aurness, the actor worked as a courier for a jewelry company in his youth. Before his acting career, he also served in the US Military during World War II, and although he was rejected as a fighter pilot due to his height, he served in the US Army until he was severely wounded at the Battle of Anzio. His brother, actor Peter Graves, assured him that although he was injured, he could still pursue a career in radio. Arness followed his brother's advice and secured a job as a radio announcer at Minneapolis' WLOL after he recovered. However, the actor soon set his sights for Hollywood and hitchhiked there to pursue his dream of acting.

He made his film debut in 1947 with The Farmer's Daughter, and starred in various films, many of which were Westerns, prior to his stint on Gunsmoke. During this time, Arness became friends with Western legend John Wayne and starred alongside him in multiple motion pictures. In fact, it was Wayne who recommended Arness for the role in Gunsmoke and Wayne's voice can be heard introducing Arness in a prologue to the first episode. The TV series ran from 1955 to 1965 on CBS and Arness starred as the central character of Marshal Matt Dillon for all 20 years of its airing. While much is known about Arness' career life, fans may not know as much about the actor's personal life.

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Throughout the course of his life, Arness encountered both tragedy and true love. He was married twice, first to actress Virginia Chapman in 1948. Arness adopted Chapman's son, Craig, and the couple had two children, a son named Rolf (named after Arness' father), and his daughter Jenny. Their marriage began breaking down in the early 1960s, and in 1963, they were divorced. Arness was granted custody of their three children, and according to MeTV, Chapman gave up acting and moved to San Bernadino, California to run a roadside inn.


Arness' son Rolf went on to become a world surfing champion in 1970 and Craig founded a stock photo company and worked as a photographer for National Geographic. Arness' daughter, Jenny Lee Arness, unfortunately died from a drug overdose in 1975 when she was 24 years old. The actor experienced even more tragedy when his first wife also died from an overdose of sleeping pills just two years later in 1977 in Malibu, California. Mrs. Arness' death was ruled an accident by coroners. She was 56 years old.

Arness experienced great highs in his career and great lows with the death of his ex-wife and daughter, but in the late '70s he found the love of his life with his second wife Janet Surtees. Surtees worked at a dress shop, and the two met through her boss, who was married to Arness' make-up artist, Glen Alden. One night, Janet Surtees' boss invited her to dinner with her husband and Arness, and although Surtees was hesitant at first, she decided to go.

"I said, 'Oh, an actor. I don't know,'" Janet Surtees said in an interview with A Word on Westerns. "But my son was really into 'Gunsmoke.' He loved 'Gunsmoke' and was watching it every Monday night, so I thought, 'Okay, I'll meet Jim and I'll tell my son I met him.'"

Surtees arrived to the dinner before Arness, and when he walked in, her first impression of him was that he was a "big guy" (Arness was 6 ft, 2in). The two chatted at the dinner and Arness called her the next day to invite her to fly to Mammoth Lakes, California with him. She accepted and the actor/pilot flew the two of them to the area, where they rode horses and had a picnic. But the destination date wasn't the biggest thing that impressed Surtees about Arness -- it was something simple he did at the end of the date.


"He stood up when we were finished and people who had camped there before had left trash on the ground, and Jim picked up all the trash and put it in his saddle bag," she said. "He cleaned up the whole place, and I thought, 'That's a cool guy.'"

Arness and Surtees were married from 1978 to up until his death in 2011. Arness passed away on June 3, 2011 at his Brentwood home from natural causes. He was 88. Janet Surtees Arness is still living.


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