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.