LOS ANGELES - Dennis Weaver, an actor with a Midwestern
twang who played stiff-legged Chester the deputy on "Gunsmoke" and
the cowboy cop hero in "McCloud," has died.
He was 81.
Weaver died Friday from complications of cancer at his
home in Ridgway, in southwestern Colorado, his publicist,
Julian Myers, announced Monday.
"He was a wonderful man and a fine actor, and we
will all miss him," said Burt Reynolds, who appeared
with Weaver in "Gunsmoke" in the early 1960s.
Weaver's 50-year career included
stage plays and movies. But his real success was on television,
where in addition
to his cowboy roles he shared the screen with a 600-pound
black bear on "Gentle Ben" and faced down a murderous
big-rig in the early Steven Spielberg movie "Duel."
Weaver starred last year in ABC
Family's "Wildfire" as
the eccentric owner of a thoroughbred racing ranch.
"His performance never ceased to dazzle us," the
cable channel said in a prepared statement. "He was
an American legend not only for his contribution to the
acting community but for his extensive and inspirational
The tall, rangy actor was born June 4, 1924, in Joplin,
Mo., where he excelled in high-school drama and athletics.
After Navy service in World War II, he enrolled at the
University of Oklahoma and nearly qualified for the Olympic
He studied at the Actors Studio
in New York and appeared in "A Streetcar Named Desire" opposite Shelley
Winters and toured in "Come Back, Little Sheba" with
Universal Studios signed Weaver
to a contract in 1952 but found little work for him.
Three years later, he was
doing freelance features and TV spots and earning $60 a
week delivering flowers when he was offered the "Gunsmoke" role
for $300 a week.
Nine years later, he was earning a then-princely $9,000
Weaver wasn't immediately taken
with Deputy Chester Goode, his character in "Gunsmoke," he wrote in his
2001 autobiography, "All the World's a Stage."
Weaver considered the role "inane" but told
himself "I'll correct this character" using his
training and personal experience.
His odd gait and his drawling "Mis-ter Dil-lon" gave
him a memorable on-screen presence — even in the
shadow of 6-foot-7 James Arness, who played Marshal Dillon.
Weaver won an Emmy for his role in the 1958-59 season.
In the 1950s, Weaver also toured in a singing trio with
the series' Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Doc (Milburn
Weaver had other series over the
years, most of them short-lived. In addition to "Gentle Ben," which lasted two
seasons in the mid-1960s, he starred in "Kentucky
Jones," "Emerald Point N.A.S.," "Stone" and "Buck
But it was Sam McCloud that Weaver
called "the most
satisfying role of my career." The show, which ran
from 1970 to 1977, featured him as a New Mexico lawman
cast on the streets of New York City with a horse, a sheepskin
coat and a folksy manner that belied his shrewd crime-solving
Off-screen, Weaver served as president of the Screen Actors
Guild and was a vegetarian and activist for environmental
and charitable causes.
He served as president of Love Is Feeding Everyone, which
fed 150,000 needy people a week in Los Angeles County.
He founded the Institute of Ecolonomics, which sought solutions
to economic and environmental problems. He spoke at the
United Nations and Congress, as well as to college students
and school children about fighting pollution.
His "Earthship" home was
the most visible of Weaver's crusades. He and his wife,
Gerry, built the solar-powered
Colorado dwelling out of recycled tires and cans. The thick
walls helped keep the inside temperature even year-round.
"When the garbage man comes," Jay Leno once
quipped, "how does he know where the garbage begins
and the house ends?"
Weaver responded: "If we get
into the mind-set of saving rather than wasting and utilizing
we can save the Earth."
Weaver is survived by his wife; sons Rick, Robby and Rusty;
and three grandchildren.