Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dennis Weaver 1924-2006

It is a rare thing that three television legends die within a few days of each other. Sadly, that rare thing has happened. We have lost both Don Knotts and Darren McGavin. And then I heard that Dennis Weaver had also passed on. Weaver died from cancer Friday in Ridgway, Colorado at the age of 81. He was best known as Chester, Marshall Matt Dillan's lame sidekick on Gunsmoke and as Marshal McCloud on the series McCloud.

Dennis Weaver was born in Joplin, MO on June 24, 1924. He attended the University of Oklahoma where he studied drama and also achieved success as a track star. During World War II he was a pilot for the U.S. Navy. He tried out for the Olympics in 1948, but failed to make the American decathalon team. It was then that fellow Missourian and actor Lonny Chapman persuaded him to go to New York to take up acting full time.

It was largely due to Chapman that Weaver got his first big break on Broadway. He was an understudy for Chapman in the play Come Back, Little Sheba and would eventually take the same role for the play's national tour. He later enrolled in the Actor's Studio. There he met starlet Shelley Winters who helped him get a contract with Universal Studios. Weaver made his first film appearance in Horizons West in 1952. For the next few years he would appear in small roles in various films, including the movie version of the TV show Dragnet (1954). Not surprisingly, he would also make various guest apperances on that show, as well as Schlitz Playhouse and The Lone Ranger.

It was in 1955 that Weaver got the biggest break of his life, the role of Chester Goode on Gunsmoke. Chester walked with a limp, spoke with a countrified accent and was known for his coffee. Chester was very open and honest, but also extremely gullible. Contrary to popular belief, Chester was never Dillon's deputy, merely a good friend. Gunsmoke soon became one of the most popular shows on television and as a result, Dennis Weaver received national recognition. He was even nominated for an Emmy for Best Continuing Supporting Performance by an Actor in a Dramatic or Comedy Series in 1958 and won the award in 1959.

Dennis Weaver left Gunsmoke in 1964 for his own show, Kentucky Jones, a family drama on which Weaver played a vetrinarian. The show did not last long, but Weaver would not be out of work for long. He was an actor in demand and continued to make guest appearances on television on such shows as The Twilight Zone, The Virginian, and The Name of the Game. He also appeared in several TV movies and miniseries, including Steven Spielberg's Duel, Centennial, and The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd. Weaver also appeared as the regular (often the lead) in several series, including Gentle Ben, Emerald Point: NAS, and the ABC Family series Wildfire (his last appearance on screen).

Of course, besides Gunsmoke, Weaver's greatest claim to fame was the role of Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud on the series McCloud. McCloud was one of the rotating elements of the umbrella series The NBC Mystery Movie. MCcloud was a U.S. Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico who finds himself assigned to duty with the N.Y.P.D. His tendency to dispense with procedure and his Western ways sometimes clashed with his superiors, but his arrest record proved him indispensable. Weaver played McCloud for seven years and would later do so again in a reunion movie.

Growing up I must admit that Dennis Weaver was one of my favourite actors. I was too young to remember him as Chester on Gunsmoke. In fact, for most of my childhood I didn't know that Matt Dillon had a sidekick before Festus! I rather suspect I first encountered him in the role of Tom Wedloe, father of Mark Wedloe (played by Ron Howard's brother, Clint), on the series Gentle Ben. On that series Mark happened to have a very unusual pet--a bear named Ben. I don't know if it actually was a good show, but it was enough to keep me entertained at four years of age.

Like many of my generation, instead of Gunsmoke, I remember Weaver from McCloud and Duel. I must confess that I watched McCloud avidly as a child (it was my favourite NBC Mystery Movie series besides Columbo and Hec Ramsey). The show's appeal for me was that it was a classic fish out of water situation. Indeed, as someone who grew up in the country I could identify with McCloud as he wrestled with big city ways. The series earned Weaver two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series. Weaver wasn't nominated for Duel, although he should have been. In that classic telefilm he played David Mann, the poor guy who crosses paths with a psychotic trucker with road rage to spare. As David Mann, Weaver plays an everyman who falls victim to every doubt and fear the average American might have about commuting.

I think that is largely why Dennis Weaver always appealed to me. He was a bit of an everyman (indeed, he is one of the very few actors who didn't speak with an accent...). Whether playing Chester on Gunsmoke or Sam McCloud, he was the sort of fellow one could easily identify with. It is sad to think that he is gone, but at least he has left a fairly large legacy of television roles for us to remember him by.

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