Dennis Weaver starred in Steven Spielberg's 1971 directoral debut, "Duel," shot on location on Sierra Highway and Vasquez Canyon Road in the Santa Clarita Valley. | Click image to enlarge
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 environmental work."
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 decathlon.
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 Shirley Booth.
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 a week.
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 Stone).
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 James."
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 talent.
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 other materials, we can save the Earth."
Weaver is survived by his wife; sons Rick, Robby and Rusty; and three grandchildren.