Dennis Weaver, Gunsmoke and Gentle Ben Star, Dies at 81

Dennis Weaver has died of cancer. He was 81.

Photo: This 1956 file photo shows actors Dennis Weaver, left, as the slow-witted deputy Chester and James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon, are shown in a scene from CBS' TV classic western 'Gunsmoke' in 1956. Weaver died of complications from cancer on Friday, Feb. 24, 2006, at his home in Ridgway, in southwestern Colorado, publicist Julian Myers said. The actor was 81. (AP Photo/file)Dennis Weaver, the diffident deputy Chester Goode in the TV classic western “Gunsmoke” and the canny New Mexico deputy solving New York City crime in “McCloud,” has died. The actor was 81. Weaver died of complications from cancer Friday 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,” Burt Reynolds, who played alongside Weaver in “Gunsmoke,” said Monday.

Weaver was a struggling actor in Hollywood in 1955, earning $60 a week delivering flowers when he was offered $300 a week for a role in a new CBS television series, “Gunsmoke.” After nine years as Chester, who he played with a stiff-legged gait, he was earning $9,000 a week. When Weaver first auditioned for the series, he found the character of Chester “inane.” He wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “All the World’s a Stage,” that he said to himself: “With all my Actors Studio training, I’ll correct this character by using my own experiences and drawing from myself.” The result was a well-rounded character that appealed to audiences, especially with his drawling, “Mis-ter Dil-lon.”

Photo: Actor Dennis Weaver, president of the Screen Actors Guild, is shown in Hollywood, Ca., in June 1974. Weaver, the slow-witted deputy Chester Goode in the TV classic western 'Gunsmoke' and the New Mexico deputy solving New York crime in 'McCloud,' has died. The actor was 81. (AP Photo)At the end of seven hit seasons, Weaver sought other horizons. He announced his departure, but the failures of pilots for his own series caused him to return to “Gunsmoke” on a limited basis for two more years. The role brought him an Emmy in the 1958-59 season.

In 1966, Weaver starred with a 600-pound black bear in “Gentle Ben,” about a family that adopts a bear as a pet. The series was well-received, but after two seasons, CBS decided it needed more adult entertainment and canceled it. Next came the character Sam McCloud, which Weaver called “the most satisfying role of my career.” The “McCloud” series, 1970-1977, put the no-nonsense lawman from Taos, N.M., onto the crime-ridden streets of New York City. His wild-west tactics, such as riding his horse through Manhattan traffic, drove local policemen crazy, but he always solved the case.

Photo: Actor Dennis Weaver poses with the Emmy award he received as best supporting actor in a dramatic series for his role in 'Gunsmoke' at the 1959 Emmy Awards. REUTERS/Photo Courtesy Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/Handout I watched “McCloud” as a kid and saw “Gentle Ben” in reruns. While I was aware of Weaver’s role on “Gunsmoke” and have seen a handful of episodes with him, I always think of Ken Curtis’ Festus as the deputy on that show.

It’s amusing that Weaver was proudest of his work on “McCloud” given that he won an Emmy for “Gunsmoke.” But I guess being the leading man is more satisfying than being the oaf sidekick. Coincidentally, Don Knotts, who played the ultimate oaf sidekick Barney Fife on the “Andy Griffith Show,” also died over the weekend.

One thing I didn’t know about Weaver until doing some research for this post is that he was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1973-77. He has some pretty prestigious company in that regard.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. NoZe says:

    And “proving” the truism that celebrities die in threes – Darren McGavin died over the weekend as well.

    Most will remember him as the father on the perennial “Christmas Story” film, but I will always remember him for the 1970s TV series “The Night Stalker,” one of my favorite programs as a kid!

  2. Andy Vance says:

    He was also a flaming pinko. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in his recycled “Earthship” house in Colorado.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Duel – Steven Spielberg’s first “big” movie, although it was made for TV.