During the very last year of “Gunsmoke,” James Arness, or as he was known on the show Marshal Matt Dillon, met his future wife.
The popular Western lasted 20 years, from 1955 to 1975. That last year, as the show was winding down, Arness met Janet Surtees.
James Arness and Janet First Date
Janet worked in a dress shop and had a connection with someone that worked onset of the show.
“His makeup artist, Glen Alden, his wife owned a dress shop … I happened to work for her and I worked for her for six or seven years. She’d tell me about Jim and their adventures, but I never met him,” Janet Surtees said in a 2017 interview with “A Word on Westerns.”
Eventually, her friend asked if she wanted to meet Arness at their house for dinner. She went and described the actor as “so friendly, down to Earth.” The two later went on a date that involved flying in Arness’ small plane and camping outside.
Along the way, the pair stopped at a store to buy some food for the trip. “First we stopped at a grocery store. We go into this grocery store…and standing in the market was this advertisement of Jim, life-size, holding cigarettes,” she said.
The advertisement had both he and Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty on “Gunsmoke, smoking and holding cigarettes. It was another (life-size) reminder that she was on a date with a very popular actor that had been on the same popular show for nearly 20 years.
After the date, he got caught up in his life and business and waited to call for three months. Once he did, Janet said it was all history from there. The two got married in 1978.
James Arness Private Marriage and ‘Gunsmoke’
Unfortunately, Arness passed away from natural causes in 2011 at the age of 88. He was survived by Janet. During his life, he was also married to Virginia Chapman in 1948. He adopted her son, Craig, and the pair also had a son and a daughter together. His family life was marked by a lot of tragedy. His daughter Jenny died from a drug overdose in 1975 and then Chapman also died of a drug overdose in 1977. The two had divorced in 1963.
Both Arness and Janet Surtees were incredibly private people. Even after 33 years of marriage, there is little information about her. She also had children from another marriage (a son who happened to love “Gunsmoke”).
When they were about to get married, the media went to the dress shop she worked at trying to get photos of her since they had none. She said she hid from them at the time, again citing her desire for privacy.
According to an American Cowboy article from 2011, James Arness wrote a letter to his fans right before he passed away for Janet to post on their website.
A part of it explained his love and appreciation for his wife. It also shared his love for his “Gunsmoke” fans.
A part of the letter says, “I had a wonderful life and was blessed with some many loving people and great friends. The best part of my life was my family, especially my wife Janet. Many of you met her at Dodge City so you understand what a special person she is.”