James Arness was passionate about Gunsmoke, but he put his children ahead of his shooting schedule


Actor James Arness made a big name for himself while working on Gunsmoke. He was known for his relaxed demeanor, which was unlike many of his colleagues. However, Arness was very particular about the logistics of working on Gunsmoke. He nearly threw the entire opportunity away when the production would cut into his weekly routine. Therefore, they had no option other than to accommodate him however they could.

Fellow Western actor John Wayne recommended Arness to play U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, which goes down in television history. He set longevity records for playing the character over the course of 20 years, which also allowed the television show itself to break records. However, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU would later challenge its supremacy for live-action television dramas.

Gunsmoke wasn’t the end of Arness’ time starring in Western-themed stories. He also starred in How the West Was Won, which further gave him international stardom. Arness had a short role in McClain’s Law from 1981 to 1982 as a major city police officer. He wasn’t able to make the big move into feature films as many other actors tried to, but he certainly cemented himself in the world of television as a fan favorite actor.

According to a TV Guide interview, Arness refused to film Gunsmoke on certain days. As a result, he threatened to quit if the production didn’t allow him to keep to his weekly routine. The producers tried their best to work around his schedule to keep him onboard.

“We always tried to keep Jim out of the show Mondays and Fridays, so he could go skiing or go to the islands where the big waves were breaking,” former Gunsmoke producer Norman Macdonnell said. “Then he’d come in and work his tail off Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Jim told me, ‘If we can’t schedule it this way, let’s forget the whole thing. I’m going to have some time with my children. Period.’”

Arness would do his work on Gunsmoke and then “disappear,” avoiding the Hollywood scene. When he and his first wife, Virginia Chapman, divorced, he started to date, which quickly became the news of the town.

“It was an event,” Macdonnell said. “It was all over town the next morning that Jim had had a date.”

Arness was passionate about Gunsmoke, but he put his children ahead of his shooting schedule. He had three children over the course of his lifetime – Craig, Rolf, and Jenny. When Arness married Chapman, he adopted her son, Craig, who founded an agency working in stock photography and worked for National Geographic.

Next, the married couple had Rolf and Jenny together. Rolf became 1970’s World Surfing Champion, while Jenny appeared in two episodes of Gunsmoke.

The actor married Janet Surtees 18 years after his divorce, but they didn’t have any children together.


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