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James Arness’s Wife and Family: His Life With Virginia Chapman and Janet Surtees

From his enduring marriages, facing personal tragedies to his brave WWII battle scar, this article explores the intriguing private life of James Arness, beyond his Matt Dillon character. Don’t miss out on knowing more about the life of James Arness's wife and his family.
by Rob Gillham | Jan 3 2024
James Arness’s Wife and Family: His Life With Virginia Chapman and Janet Surtees

James Arness is synonymous with the golden era of Hollywood Westerns and is particularly associated with his long-standing role as Matt Dillon in the TV series, “Gunsmoke.” As fans remember his iconic acting career, curiosity about his personal life, specifically who James Arness’s wife was, remains unabated.

Here’s a detailed insight into his life off-screen.

Virginia Chapman: James Arness’s First Marriage

In his lifetime, James Arness was married twice. 

James first married Virginia Chapman in 1948. During this marriage, he adopted Chapman’s son Craig Arness (1946 – 2004), who went on to found the stock photography agency, Westlight and worked as a photographer for National Geographic.

With Virginia Chapman, Arness also had a son, Rolf Arness (born February 18, 1952), who rose to fame as a World Surfing Champion in 1970; and a daughter, Jenny Lee Arness (born May 23, 1950). 

Unfortunately, Arness’s marriage to Chapman ended in divorce in 1963, resulting in Arness gaining custody of their children. Further tragedy ensued as their daughter Jenny passed away; attributed to an intentional drug overdose in 1975. 

Adding to the family sorrows, Virginia Chapman also passed away from an accidental drug overdose in 1977, and later his son, Craig, died of cancer in 2004.

James’s Second and Final Wife: Janet Surtees 

James found love again four years after his divorce, dating Thordis Brandt for six years before they eventually parted ways. 

In 1978, he married Janet Surtees, an enduring relationship, and they stayed together until Arness’s death. 

James Arness passed away at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, at 88 years old on June 3, 2011, from natural causes. He is interned in the Sanctuary of Abiding Hope alcove in the Jasmine Terrace section of the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

James Arness’s legacy continues through his wife, Janet Surtees, and his children.

James Arness and His Brother Peter Graves 

Apart from his marriages, James Arness shared the entertainment industry with his younger brother, Peter Graves, known for his role in the “Mission Impossible” series.

James Arness In World War II

Before his success as an actor, at the height of World War II, in March 1943, Arness was drafted into the US Army. 

During the Battle of Anzio, Arness suffered a severe wound to his right leg, leading to his medical evacuation from Italy to the US. He was treated at the 91st General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa.

After a series of surgeries, Arness was honorably discharged from the Army on January 29, 1945. His war injuries, however, would go on to plague him for the rest of his life.

In his later years, he battled chronic leg pain that could spike sharply, particularly during horse-mounted performances in his famed role on Gunsmoke.

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