A Closer Look At James Arness Family, Long Acting Career And How He Died

James Arness was one of the brightest and talented actors of the classical Hollywood era. The veteran actor is best known for playing the role of Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, a popular television series which was aired on CBS Network. Arness’s role as Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won earned him a huge fan base in Europe.

It would interest you to know that the late Hollywood star held the rank of Corporal in the United States Army. For his bravery and gallant fighting in Operation Shingle battle of World War II, Arness was honoured with the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart and the World War II Victory Medal. As fate would have it, Arness’ sterling military accomplishments were well-matched by his fine spell in Hollywood. For his contributions to the film industry, Arness was awarded a star on the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame.

James Arness’s Background Information

Born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the late actor was christened James King Arness. For reasons best known to him, James decided to drop the ‘u’ in his last name when he began acting. Despite being born in the United States of America, Arness is also of Norwegian and German ancestry. His father, Rolf Cirkler Aurness, was a Norwegian citizen who immigrated into America in 1887. His mother, Ruth Duesler, was a journalist of German descent. The only known sibling of the widely acclaimed actor was his younger brother, Peter Graves. James and Peter were brought up as Methodists due to their parents’ religious background.

James had his elementary education at John Burroughs Grade School. After which he was enrolled in Washburn High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Arness is believed to have completed his high school education in June 1942 at West High School, situated in his hometown of Minneapolis. James worked part-time as a courier while he was at West High School to make ends meet and complete his education.

Highlights of His Acting Exploits

Shortly after Arness was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 1945, he set out to work as a radio announcer for WLOL radio station situated in his hometown. The late actor started out his acting career with RKO Pictures where he changed his name from Aurness to Arness. He got his film debut when he starred as Peter Holstrom in the 1947 classic film The Farmer’s Daughter.

Some of the foremost western actor’s earliest films include Them!, Battleground, Wagon Master, Sierra and The Thing from Another World. Arness also appeared alongside veteran actor John Wayne in Island in the Sky, Hondo, The Sea Chase and Big Jim McLain. More so, the star actor appeared in Gun the Man Down and Red River which were both from the stables of Wayne’s production company.

After a couple of years in the film business, James Arness got his major career break when he landed the Gunsmoke role in 1955. The show which ran for 20 years earned him widespread praise and critical acclaim. Following the success of Gunsmoke, James was recruited to portray the character of Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won. His mountain man role made him a cult personality in many countries across Europe. Other notable television and film appearances by the late actor include McClain’s Law and Pioneers of Television.

Arness was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the American television and film industry. The late actor was also inducted into the prestigious Western Performers Hall of Fame, as well as the Santa Clarita Walk of Western Stars in 1981 and 2006 respectively.

James Arness’s Brother, Peter Graves Was Also an Acclaimed Actor

Peter Graves, up until his death on March 14, 2010, was an American television and film actor. Graves is best known for his roles in Mission: Impossible, Airplane! and Airplane II: The Sequel. Peter was a recipient of the prestigious Golden Globe Award and Primetime Emmy Award. Unlike his brother James, Peter opted to adopt the name Graves, which was his maternal family name, in honour of his mother’s family.

Graves began his acting career in 1951 shortly after the end of his two-year stint in the United States Air Force. He earned his acting debut after appearing as Pete Dandridge in Rogue River. In that same year, Graves appeared in three other films – Up Front, Angels in the Outfield and Fort Defiance. The talented actor featured in over 70 television and film productions in the course of his acting career. Amongst his large haul of awards and accolades include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame like his brother, James Arness.

Starting His Own Family With A Single Mum

James Arness Wife, kids, family
James Arness with Janet Surtees – image source

Arness got married to Virginia Chapman, a single mother, in 1948. The Hollywood star adopted Chapman’s son Craig as soon as they were married. Asides Craig, the couple went on to have two children, a son and a daughter. Their son, Rolf Aurness, was born on February 18, 1952, while their daughter, Jenny Lee Aurness, was born on May 23, 1950.

Rolf became a professional surfer, known for winning the World Surfing Championship in 1970. Not much is known about Jenny Lee except that she passed away on May 12, 1975, a few days to her 25th birthday. The primary cause of Jenny’s death was cited as drug overdose. James Arness’s adopted son, Craig, worked for National Geographic as a photographer and later founded his own photography agency.

Sadly, James’s marriage to Virginia Chapman was annulled in 1963 after they couldn’t bear each other any longer. In 1978, the late Hollywood star tied the nuptial knot for the second time with Janet Surtees and the pair remained married until his demise.

What Caused Arness’s Death?

The widely acclaimed actor died on June 3, 2011, at his Los Angeles home. The coroner revealed that the Hollywood star died of natural causes. Arness was buried in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park situated in Glendale, California.

The retired U.S military man was survived by his second wife, Janet Surtees, and his two sons – Craig and Rolf Arness. James Arness, who died at the age of 88, is said to have lived a long and fulfilled life. However, even in death, the award-winning actor ranks as one of the greatest television stars of all time.

Chika Udeh
Chika holds a B.A in English language/History and has over 5 years experience in content development and journalism. She loves playing with writing, wordsmiths, and storytelling in all its forms, and when she is not writing about famous people and events that matter, she is probably listening or dancing to some cool jams.


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