‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Stoically Dealt with Great Personal Loss

by Keeli Parkey

Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” fame was an upstanding man who stood for law and order. He did what he thought he was right. And he was viewed by many as a very stoic figure. The same could be said of the actor who brought the famous marshal to life in the famous television series.

That actor, of course, was James Arness. It is Arness fans have to thank for making Dillon the iconic Western character that he still is decades after the original run of “Gunsmoke” ended.

It appears that James Arness was also a stoic figure in his personal life. He even handled a few tragic personal losses with the stoic nature of his on-screen persona. According to AmoMama, one of the losses the “Gunsmoke” star endured was the death of his daughter, Jenny Lee.

Jenny Lee came into the actor’s life through his marriage to Virginia Chapman. They were married in 1948. Arness and Chapman had Jenny Lee and a son named Rolf together. Arness also adopted Virginia’s son, Craig. She had him during a prior relationship. Arness adopted Craig when the boy was only 2 years old.

Sadly, Jenny Lee would die only 11 days before her 25th birthday. Her cause of death was reportedly an overdose of sleeping pills. Her death took place in May of 1975. Arness would live until the year 2011. That means he lived 36 after the death of his daughter.

Virginia Arness also passed away during the 1970s. While her marriage to the “Gunsmoke” star came to an end in 1963, the two still shared children together. Virginia reportedly passed away due to an accidental drug overdose.

‘Gunsmoke’ Star James Arness Also Endured the Death of One of His Sons

Jenny Lee wasn’t the only child James Arness would lose during his lifetime. The other was his adopted son, Craig. This child of the “Gunsmoke” star found his professional calling in photography. And he had a talent for the craft. In fact, in 1978 he had his work published in the famous magazine, National Geographic. That job led to a long relationship between Craig and National Geographic.

Craig was also an award-winning photographer. He received the Best Photograph Award and the Best Photo of the Year. As his career went on, he joined forces with Charles O’Rear – another photographer – to being Westlight. This company was a stock photography service.

Craig fell ill in 2004. That year, he was treated for lung issues and anemia. Sadly, he died when he was 58 years old in December 2004.

The “Gunsmoke” star’s son, Rolf, also had a health scare during his life. When this boy was only 9 years old, he suffered a fractured skull. To help his son on his road to recovery, Arness began teaching the boy to surf. Rolf was talented at the sport. He even won the World Surfing Champion title in 1970.

However, after Virginia and Jenny Lee passed away, surfing held little interest for Rolf. He stepped away from the sport for a while, but he went back to it during the 1980s.