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Fame Couldn’t Protect James Arness From Lots of Death

Known for playing the role of Marshal Matt Dillon over the course of two decades on the hit CBS western Gunsmoke, James Arness was an actor that saw a great deal of recognition during his time. However, the actor’s stardom wasn’t enough to save him from leading a fairly tumultuous life. The actor experienced many tragedies over the course of his lifetime, including the suicide of his daughter and ex-wife. Join Facts Verse as we explore why fame couldn’t protect James Arness from lots of death.

A Little Background Of James Arness

James Arness was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26, 1923. His father is a businessman by the name of Rolf Arness, and his mother, Ruth Duesler is a journalist. His younger brother grows up to be a fellow television actor, Peter Arness. He becomes famous under the stage name Peter Graves for his work as the lead on the series Mission: Impossible.

James served in World War II. Although he had aspirations of becoming a pilot, his eyesight proved too poor. As well, his height of 6’7 makes it incredibly tough for him to fit comfortably inside of the average cockpit. Instead, James ended up being drafted into the United States Army, serving as a rifleman. His most notable accomplishment during the war was serving in the historical Battle of Anzio. During that famous battle, James severely injured his leg and had to be rushed back overseas to Iowa.

While recovering in Iowa, James befriended a nurse who suggested to him that his voice would be ideal for radio. After making his recovery, James attended college in Wisconsin with the hopes of becoming a radio announcer. In 1945, he was hired on at a local station back in Minneapolis. James loved entertaining people but eventually decided that radio work wasn’t enough. He then hitchhiked his way out to Hollywood with the hope of working in film and television.

Burden In James Arness’ Height

Although James’ height is a burden when he’s aiming to become a pilot, it is a blessing in Hollywood. James’ incredible height made him stand out, and he was soon getting roles that required an intimidating presence. Roles can find in Westerns, which is James leads the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in the CBS western Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke bases on a radio program. Producers are looking for someone besides the program’s voice actor. It is to cast the role of the lead character Marshal Matt Dillon for television. The producers originally went after John Wayne, who suggested to them James instead.

James Arness’ Acting Career

James’ career had begun in 1947. That year, he played a minor role in the film The Farmer’s Daughter. He went on to play big parts in the 1950s science fiction classics The Thing From Another World and Them! James works alongside John Wayne for years before John recommends James for the lead role in the adaptation of Gunsmoke. James worked with John’s production company, starring alongside him in films such as Hondo and Big Jim McLain.

Gunsmoke comes to television screens in 1955 and remains in production for two decades before ending in 1975. James Arness plays the lead character Marshal Matt Dillon throughout the entirety of the show’s run. His work as the character proves to be the actor’s biggest and most iconic role in life. However, James continued working for many years after Gunsmoke aired its final episode. Soon after the show ends, James takes on another lead role in the 1976 series How the West Was Won. That series, which was based upon the 1962 film of the same name, lasted for three seasons before ending in 1979.

In the 1980s, James took on the role of titular character Detective Jim McClain on the short-lived detective series McClain’s Law. The series only lasted for one season, turning out to be far from the successful transition outside of the Western genre that James had been hoping for. Thankfully, James was welcomed back into the Western world in the form of five made-for-television Gunsmoke movies that were filmed between 1987 and 1993.

James Arness In Gunsmoke

James retired from acting officially after his role in the fifth Gunsmoke film. Besides the release of a 2001 autobiography, the public heard relatively little about James over the course of his remaining years, up until his death in 2011. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support. As well, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

While many actors have a hard time watching their own work, James Arness never had that problem when it came to Gunsmoke. According to legend, the actor would routinely turn on reruns of the program in his twilight years and marvel at the craft and writing that had gone into making the show what it was. James always expressed a massive respect for the show’s artistic achievements, saying it was less of a Western and more of a character study. This was the reason that show was able to click with audiences. Even today, people are still watching the program, some for the first time!

Death In 2011

After his retirement in 1993, James lived a life of peace up until his death in 2011. The actor was pronounced dead from natural causes at the age of 88. At the time of his death, the actor was reported to be worth an estimated $8 million, which was passed on to his surviving family members.

James had been married twice in his life, and had three children. His first wife was a woman by the name of Virginia Chapman, a fellow thespian that James had met while studying at the Pasadena Playhouse. The two became married in 1948, and went on to have two children together. These children were a daughter, named Jenny, and a son, named Rolf. As well, Virginia had a son named Craig from a previous marriage that James subsequently adopted.

James And Virginia

James and Virginia remained married until 1960. Sadly, their marriage had slowly fallen apart over the years. Virginia had attempted suicide in 1959, and did it again the following year. James filed for divorce, and fought to receive custody of all three children. Thankfully, James won the case. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of James’ familial troubles.

After James received custody of the three children, everything seemed to be going well. However, Jenny began showing signs of some mental health issues as she came of age. In 1975, the young woman died from what was believed to be a deliberate drug overdose, or suicide. Her mother, who had previously attempted suicide twice, followed suit two years later with one last and final attempt.

Although Jenny’s life was cut short by her own hand, her two siblings thankfully went on to lead happier lives. As well, James was eventually able to move on from these hardships and find new love. In 1965, James started a romance with actress Thordis Brandt. Although the two never married, they remained in a serious relationship until 1972.

James Arness And Janet Surtees

Several years after separating form Thordis, James met his second wife, Janet Surtees. The two were married in 1978, and remained married until James’ death many decades later. Not much has ever been known about Janet, but that’s likely the way that James wanted it.

Rolf, who was named after his grandfather, became somewhat of a surfing legend. He had been taught how to surf by his father while rehabilitating from a skull fracture. James believed that the focus and concentration that surfing required might help Rolf heal faster, and Rolf stayed with the hobby long after making his recovery! Rolf became so great at surfing that he was World Surfing Champion in 1970.

Adopted sibling Craig chose a different path in life than his brother Rolf, pursuing a career in the field of photography. After a successful tenure working for the magazine National Geographic, Craig went on to become the founder of a notable stock photography agency.

Neither Craig nor Rolf ever showed much interest in following in the footsteps of their father, which was something that James very much intended. Throughout their childhoods, James had done his best to keep his three children out of the spotlight, believing that happiness for them likely lied in more traditional careers.

James’ wife and two remaining children survived him after his death in 2011, and he was missed. In a public letter written by James shortly before his death with the intention of being read after his passing, James expressed the immense love that he felt for his family. It seems they were all that was truly on his mind during his final years of life.

The Two-Decade Long Run

Nowadays, James is still fondly remembered for his two-decade long run on the hit Western Gunsmoke. The show remains one of the most iconic Western television shows in history, and is still currently considered the longest running program within the genre. Although Western’s subsequently went out of fashion amongst the general public after Gunsmoke’s reached it’s peak popularity, there will always be a core fan base that loves Westerns, and those fans will always eventually come back to Gunsmoke. The show has been released on home media in various forms, and is still sporadically syndicated on both cable channels and basic television. Perhaps one day Westerns will come back into fashion, and Gunsmoke will see a modern reboot!

Over two decades in production, Gunsmoke produced twenty seasons 20 seasons and 635 episodes. Comment down below to share if you’re a Gunsmoke fanatic with one particular episode or moment that stands out to your more than the others, or if you’re one of many Western aficionados that is begging for the genre to come back into fashion! As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

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