James Arness knew exactly where he was going, as he took her to a remote location to have lunch


Gunsmoke actor James Arness kept his private life separate from his very public career on television’s biggest Western on the air. Nevertheless, more information about his personal life emerged over the years. Arness hated publicity and did his best to avoid it entirely. His wife, Janet Surtees, once revealed her first date with the Western star and how Gunsmoke made a surprise appearance along with characters Matt Dillon and Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty Russell.

Years before Gunsmoke made its television debut, Arness married his first wife named Virginia Chapman in 1948. They started a family along with her adopted son, Craig. Their marriage lasted 15 years until they divorced in 1963. Arness initially had difficulty juggling a booming career in entertainment with his home life, which resulted in some issues. Chapman tragically died of a drug overdose in 1977.

The actor had a longtime girlfriend of six years named Thordis Brandt, who also worked as an actor. However, they ultimately parted ways. Arness would later marry for the second time to Janet Surtees in 1978.

According to an interview with A Word on Westerns, Janet spoke about how she met Arness after he was already working on Gunsmoke. She was initially anxious when a friend invited her to have dinner with the actor, but they quickly found common ground and got along quite nicely. He called her the next day and asked her to fly up to Mammoth Lakes with him, which she agreed to.

Arness rented horses with Janet, as they shared conversations about their personal lives. She spoke about her line of work, as she already knew what he did for a living. However, their first date would turn a bit strange when they happened to come across a Gunsmoke advertisement with Matt and Miss Kitty on it.

“First, we stopped in a grocery store,” Janet recalled. “We go into this grocery store, and Jim loved to shop. He loved food. We got cheese, crackers, bread, wine, and all kinds of goodies. Then, standing in the market was this advertisement of Jim, life-sized, holding cigarettes. It was like, ‘Oh God, I’m with him’ (Laughs).”

Nevertheless, Janet had a wonderful time with Arness, as they passed a gorgeous waterfall. Arness knew exactly where he was going, as he took her to a remote location to have lunch. He surprised her with his kindness, which really stuck with her.

“Afterward, what had really impressed me about Jim was he stood up when we were finished and people who had camped there before had left trash on the ground and Jim went and he picked up all the trash and put it in his saddlebag,” Janet said. “He cleaned up the whole place and I thought, ‘Now, that’s a cool guy.’”

Gunsmoke actor Arness had three children over the course of his lifetime. The first was Craig, who went on to found his own stock photography agency called Westlight. Additionally, he worked as a photographer for National Geographic. Arness had another two children with his first wife – Rolf and Jenny. Upon the actor’s divorce from Chapman, the courts granted him legal custody of the children.

Rolf went on to become World Surfing Champion in 1970. Jenny died as a result of a drug overdose in 1975.


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