James Arness made himself a household name when he resided as the law-abiding Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” for 20 years on CBS.
He has one of the longest consecutive years of playing the same character on television. He started his reign in 1955 and stayed with “Gunsmoke” and the other regular cast members until the show ended in 1975.
Beyond his career as a Western icon, Arness also had his own relationships and personal affairs. He was married twice and was also in another serious long-term relationship.
He had a reputation as a family man. Despite his stoic character on “Gunsmoke,” Arness was known for his giggle fits on set. He also enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. His family life helps continue on his legacy beyond just his role as Matt Dillon.
James Arness’ Children
James Arness was first married to Virginia Chapman in 1948. The two had a son, Rolf, and a daughter, Jenny Lee Arness. He also adopted her son Craig.
The couple got divorced in 1963. Four years later he had a serious long-term relationship with Thordis Brandt for six years. Then, in 1978, he married Janet Surtees. He passed away in 2011 and she survived him.
Therefore, during the course of his life he had three children, all with his first wife.
The oldest of the three was Arness’ adopted son, Craig. He was born in 1946. He was a photographer that worked for the popular magazine National Geographic. Craig had also started his own stock photography business.
According to Fabiosa, Rolf is the second oldest. He was born in 1952. In 1970, he became a World Surfing Champion. His father had urged him to take on surfing to help him get through a skull fracture injury he suffered as a child. However, when his mom, sister, and wife all died, he gave up his career in surfing.
The youngest daughter, Jenny, was born in 1950. She was on “Gunsmoke” with her father briefly. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1975 from a drug overdose. Two years later Virginia Chapman also passed away from a drug overdose.
Arness Relationship with Kids
In an article in Mercer Island Reporter, an old family friend of James Arness talked about what it was like to grow up near him. The man’s name was Carter Harrington.
The Arness family was originally from Minneapolis and the Harrington family was from Kansas. They met when both moved to California. Harrington said he started a quick friendship with Craig and the rest of the family was all close.
“He would take us to the studio, and we’d all run around. It was quite a thrill for 10-year-old kids, who still believed in cowboys and Indians … He spent his whole life on the ocean, surfing, sailing. His favorite place was at Makaha beach on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu for the great surfing,” Harrington said.
Harrington also said that Arness knew how to live a balanced life. He could compartmentalize both his family life and his famous work career.