Not everyone is fortunate enough to live a life with minimal tragic incidents. For some, the tragedies never seem to stop and they keep compounding in every phase of their lives.

James Arness enjoyed a wonderful professional career but the same can't be said of his personal life where he prematurely lost so many people he loved before he inevitably passed away himself.

Let's have a look at the details of his death, his multiple married life, his numerous children, as well as the loved ones he lost.

James Arness Died Aged 88 in 2011

Gunsmoke actor James Arness died on 3rd June 2011, leaving behind a letter he wanted to be released after his death. Arness was 88 years old.

James Arness passed away aged 88
Source: SCV History

It was reported James passed away peacefully in his sleep at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles. His fans were certainly devasted by this tragic news. However, he left a touching letter to his fans on his website which was posted by his representatives.

Arness wrote:

"I had a wonderful life and was blessed with... (so) many loving people and great friends."

In the letter, James wanted to take his time to thank all his fans of GunsmokeThe Thing, How the West Was Won as well as all the other projects he was lucky to be part of. The actor added, he had the privilege of working with numerous great actors over the years.

Arness portrayed the iconic role of US Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. The series ran for two decades from 1955 to 1975. His performance as a quiet man with an amazing sense of justice was appreciated by millions of fans.

In addition, the actor featured in 12 TV shows, 34 movies, as well as five Gunsmoke made-for-TV movies. Arness achieved cult status thanks to his portrayal of Zeb Macahan in the western series titled How the West Was Won.

James Arness Married Two Times In His Life

James Arness was married twice in his life. He first shared wedding vows with Virginia Chapman in 1948. The couple shared two children, a son named Rolf Arness ((born February 18, 1952) and a daughter named Jenny Arness (born May 23, 1950).

James Arness with his first wife Virginia Chapman
Source: Find A Grave

Moreover, the actor adopted a son named Craig (born 1946) from his then-wife Virginia's previous marriage. However, the couple split in 1963 for reasons that were not known. Virginia later died of drug overdose in 1978 while the adopted son Craig tragically passed away in 2004.

The tragedy does not stop there. Arness' daughter Jenny committed suicide on 12th May 1975 by drug overdose. On the other side of the spectrum, James's son as well as his only remaining offspring by blood, Rolf Arness made his father proud when he became World Surfing Champion in 1970.

James Arness married his second wife Janet Surtees in 1978 and remained together till his death. The couple shared a son named Jim from Janet's previous relationship. Moreover, he has six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

James Arness with his wife of 33 years Janet Surtees
Source: Pinterest

Extremely private personality, James Arness refused to talk about his life's biggest tragedies. This included the deaths of his daughter and ex-wife merely two years apart. He left behind his wife of 33 years when the actor himself passed away.

Furthermore, James' brother, a well-known Misson: Impossible actor Peter Graves died of a heart attack on 14th March 2010.

Arness was known to be a shy and sensitive man. He enjoyed poetry, sailboat racing, and surfing. The actor founded Westlight, a stock photography agency. Moreover, he was a photographer for National Geographic.

James Arness: Quick Facts


Source: Britannica
  • Born on 26th May 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • His birth sign was Gemini.
  • He dropped the 'u' in his last name when he began acting.
  • His parents were Rolf Cirkler Aurness (a businessman) and Ruth Duesler (a journalist).
  • His father belonged to Norwegian ancestry whereas his mother's belonged to German.
  • His younger brother Peter Greaves used the stage name "Graves" which was a maternal family name.
  • He went to John Burroughs Grade School, Washburn High School, and West High School in Minneapolis.
  • He initially worked as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler as a high school student.
  • He completed his high school in June 1942.
  • He served in the United States Army for two years from 1943 to 1945.
  • He played the role of Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke for twenty years.
  • He was very close friends with actor John Wayne.
  • His net worth was estimated to be $8 million.
  • He died on 3rd June 2011 of natural causes.