Dennis Weaver, 81; Star of ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘McCloud’ Also Was Environmental Activist

Times Staff Writer

Dennis Weaver, the lanky actor with the gentle drawl who came to fame in the 1950s playing Marshal Matt Dillon’s limping deputy, Chester, on “Gunsmoke” and later starred as a contemporary western deputy marshal who battled crime in the Big Apple on “McCloud,” has died. He was 81.

Weaver, a longtime environmental activist and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, died of complications of cancer Friday at his home in Ridgway, Colo., his publicist, Julian Myers, said Monday.

In a more than 50-year acting career that spanned stage, films and television, Weaver had supporting roles in films such as Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir thriller “Touch of Evil.”


He also starred in dozens of TV movies, most notably Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 1971 psychological thriller “Duel,” in which Weaver memorably played a motorist menaced by the unseen driver of a large diesel truck.

“He was a willing and enthusiastic participant in much of the physical driving that was at the center of ‘Duel,’ ” Spielberg said in a statement Monday.

While lauding him as a “wonderful actor,” Spielberg said Weaver’s “love of the environment” and desire to make “the world a better place” seemed to eventually take precedence over his career.

For fans of old TV westerns, Weaver is best remembered for his Emmy Award-winning role as Chester Goode, the loyal deputy with the bum leg opposite James Arness’ larger-than-life Matt Dillon, whom Chester in his countrified drawl called “Mister Dillon.”

The landmark western-drama for adults, featuring Amanda Blake as Kitty and Milburn Stone as Doc, debuted on CBS in the fall 1955 and soon became one of television’s most popular shows.

“He was such an integral part of the show, and people loved his character of Chester,” Arness told The Times on Monday. “He and I used to go out on appearances in the early years -- we traveled all over the country together at fairs and rodeos -- and his character was just indelibly etched in the minds of millions of people around the country.

“Everywhere you went, people would ask, ‘How’s Chester?’ ”

Arness, who remained close to Weaver after he left the series, praised him as a “really fine actor.”

“We really liked each other a whole lot,” Arness said. “It’s just a shock and sadness to see him go and not be here anymore. I thought the world of him.”

When Weaver auditioned for the role of Chester, he considered the character “inane.” But, he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “All the World’s a Stage,” he told himself: “With all my Actors Studio training, I’ll correct this character by using my experiences and drawing from myself.”

Weaver played the character from 1955 to 1964, winning an Emmy Award in 1959 as best supporting actor in a dramatic series.

“If I’d have known I would do that [role] for nine years, I wouldn’t have picked a character with a stiff leg,” he said jokingly in a 1997 interview with the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette. “Try making a campfire with a stiff leg.”

Weaver played the part so well that thousands of fans wrote to him offering money, advice and the names of top surgeons to correct his limp.

During his years on “Gunsmoke,” Weaver continued to appear in dramatic showcases on CBS such as “Playhouse 90” and “Climax!” And, eager “to grow as an actor,” he left the western series.

He went on to star in “Kentucky Jones,” a 1964 comedy-drama series about a veterinarian-horse trainer who adopts a Chinese orphan. Despite good reviews, the NBC show was canceled after 26 weeks.

He returned to series TV again on CBS in 1967, starring in “Gentle Ben,” about a game warden, his wife, small son and a pet bear. It lasted two seasons.

“The reason I got away from ‘Gunsmoke’ was that I wanted to leave the second banana role,” Weaver told the Toronto Star in 1987. “It was a very important -- and frightening -- step for me career-wise. I was a little naive. ‘Gunsmoke’ was the only series that I had done up to that point and I thought, well, I’d just get another series and I’d get a successful one. But that’s not the way things happened.”

Not until “McCloud.”

The NBC police drama premiered in 1970 as the first of four miniseries aired under the collective title “Four-In-One.” The next fall, “McCloud” joined “Columbo and “McMillan and Wife” as one of three original elements in the “NBC Mystery Movie” rotation, where it remained until 1977.

In the fish-out-of-water story, Weaver played Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud of Taos, N.M., who found himself on temporary assignment in Manhattan’s 27th Precinct.

McCloud, who wore a cowboy hat and sheepskin jacket, was known for his Western homilies and the catchphrase “There you go.” He also had a romantic interest, writer Chris Coughlin, who was played by Diana Muldaur.

“Quite suddenly, Dennis Weaver became something he’d never been before in all his years of limping through ‘Gunsmoke’ as Chester or cuddling up to racehorses [on ‘Kentucky Jones’] and bears [on ‘Gentle Ben’] -- a sex symbol,” Times TV critic Cecil Smith wrote in 1975.

While on hiatus from “McCloud,” Weaver starred in “Duel,” directed by a then-unknown Spielberg.

“It’s overall the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Weaver, who did many of his own stunts, told The Times during production in 1971. “This has got to be the best part any actor will get all year. I still wake up amazed I was lucky enough to get it.”

Born in Joplin, Mo., on June 4, 1924, Weaver was part Irish, Scottish, English and Cherokee and Osage Indian. His father worked for the electric company and farmed 10 acres near Joplin to make ends meet during the Depression.

Weaver, who developed his interest in acting while watching westerns and jungle-adventure films at Saturday matinees, was a top athlete in high school.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he majored in drama at the University of Oklahoma, where he set track and field records. In 1948, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the decathlon but missed the cut by placing sixth.

After graduating in 1949, Weaver moved to New York City, where he was accepted into the Actors Studio.

He landed his first professional acting job as understudy for the role of college athlete Turk in the Broadway production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which opened in 1951. He later took over the role of Turk and played it on the company’s national tour.

While Weaver was studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, actress Shelley Winters recommended him to the talent department at Universal.

Signed to the studio in 1952, Weaver spent the next three years playing minor roles in more than a dozen films. He also appeared with Winters in a Los Angeles stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for which he earned critical praise for his performance as Stanley Kowalski.

Weaver had been supplementing his acting income by working as a deliveryman for his aunt’s florist shop when he landed his role on “Gunsmoke.”

In 1973, he won a sweeping victory against incumbent John Gavin for the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild. Weaver was the first SAG president to serve a two-year term.

“The years that Dennis Weaver served his fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild were particularly challenging times for actors and our union,” SAG President Alan Rosenberg said in a statement Monday. “He not only rose to the challenge, he became a beloved leader for our guild -- a man known for being approachable, unbiased, nonpartisan, always willing to listen and eminently fair.”

Weaver, who also was a singer and songwriter, occasionally appeared on TV variety shows and specials and recorded an album, “Dennis Weaver,” in 1977.

In 1982, he was chosen to replace the late John Wayne as the exclusive spokesman for Great Western Savings & Loan Assn. Weaver, who previously had endorsed a major credit card and several other products on television, remained the Great Western spokesman for 14 years.

For the last nine years, in addition to acting roles, he played host to films on the Encore Westerns cable channel.

Weaver devoted much of his time to humanitarian and ecological causes over the years.

In 1983, he founded the distribution network Love Is Feeding Everyone as a way to channel unused food from supermarkets to hungry families in Los Angeles.

He was on the board of directors of ECO (Earth Communications Office), a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the planet. And in the early ‘90s, he and his wife, Gerry, founded the Institute of Ecolonomics (ecology and economics), which seeks funding for environmental projects.

Weaver was a longtime proponent of hydrogen-powered cars, and his organization sponsored Drive to Survive, a caravan of eight alternative-fuel vehicles that made cross-country drives from Los Angeles to Washington.

“We are hoping to help jump-start public interest in these alternative technologies,” he told The Times in 2003.

In 1993, the Weavers moved into an environmentally sensitive house they had built on 22 acres in Ridgway: a 10,000-square-foot solar-powered house built from recycled tires and tin cans.

In addition to his wife of 60 years, Weaver is survived by three sons, Rick, Robby and Rusty; and three grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.