PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
Dennis Weaver’s onscreen persona achieved an admirable balanced with his off-screen sensibility. His laconic portrayals of Middle American machismo complemented a personal devotion to family and activism, and he was a man admired both for his passion and his professionalism. Weaver, who died 27 February, was more than his memorable roles displayed, even as he was like them.
Born in Joplin, Missouri on 4 June 1924, Weaver was a star athlete in high school. He joined the Naval Reserves during World War II, then attended the University of Oklahoma, where he competed in the 1948 Olympic Trials. He placed sixth in the Decathlon, beating first place finisher (and future Gold Medalist) Bob Mathias in the 1500 meters.
Along with the adrenalin of competition, Weaver also had performing in his blood. In 1950, he and his wife Gerry Stowell moved to New York, in hopes of securing work on the stage. After serving as understudy for Lonny Chapman, as Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba, he took the role on tour, then returned to Manhattan to start his training at the Actor’s Studio. There, he befriended Shelley Winters, who would be instrumental in getting the young man a contract with Universal. Weaver quickly grew unhappy with the bland B westerns in which he was consistently cast; yet, one of those films provided him the chance to meet Charles Marquis Warren (director of Seven Angry Men), who would later help him become a television legend.
After working with Jack Webb in his Dragnet film (and later in the first incarnation of the TV series), Weaver was called by Warren to audition for the role of Chester Goode, deputy to Dodge City marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. When he learned that his potential co-star was 6’ 9” James Arness, Weaver knew he had to come up with something to help him stand out. He devised an awkward limp and unusual way of speaking for the character. Chester’s popularity helped to propel Gunsmoke into the ratings stratosphere, and as the series ran for some 20 years, during which time, Weaver would won an Emmy (1959). He also participated as part of a singing trio with cast-mates Milburn Stone (Doc Adams) and Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty).
After nine years in Dodge, Weaver feared he would be typecast forever as the drawling, hobbled comic relief, and to seek out different acting experiences. During his tenure on Gunsmoke, he had worked with Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958) and hoped other big screen jobs would come his way. When they didn’t, he returned to TV, playing Clint Howard’s father in Gentle Ben. (According to Howard, Weaver was responsible for his very existence, as he had introduced Rance Howard to Jean Speegle—Clint and Ron’s mother—when they were in college.)
In 1970, Weaver appeared in what would turn out to be another career-defining role. As part of the NBC Mystery Movie series, he starred in a one-off pilot film as Sam McCloud. When this New Mexico lawman came to New York City to fight crime, he became a kind of cockeyed counterculture statement, a dedicated Don Quixote battling the wicked urban windmills. With another stern yet sincere performance by its star, McCloud became the second long term success for Weaver, running for almost seven years. It cemented his status as a small screen superstar, opening up other opportunities.
During McCloud’s initial ascent, Weaver was offered the chance to work with a young, untested filmmaker on an unusual chase thriller. Duel (1971) announced the arrival of Stephen Spielberg and showed Weaver’s range. He served as President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1973 to 1975 and throughout the remainder of his career, balanced popularity with controversy, taking on projects that challenged his “countrified” image. He took on the role of a wife-beating businessman in the 1977 TV shocker, Intimate Strangers, and played the physician who inadvertently treated Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1980’s The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd.
During the next decade, Weaver was memorable as a father haunted by his dead daughter in Don’t Go to Sleep (1982) and tackled the then hot-button issue of drug addiction with 1983’s Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction. Without the weekly grind of a series, Weaver found time to pursue his own personal causes. A vegetarian, he devoted time to environmental issues, and founded the Institute of Ecolonomics (Ecology + Economics) in conjunction with Missouri Southern State University in his hometown of Joplin. Weaver also built a home out of recycled materials called “The Earthship,” where he and Gerry would spend their later years.
While more than comfortable in his role as semi-retired radical, Weaver took the occasional show business vehicle to advance and fund his causes. Most memorably, he was Buffalo Bill Cody in Lonesome Dove: The Series, and gave a bravura performance as an alcoholic, ex-star of old time Hollywood westerns on The Simpsons. Failing health finally caused him to cut back. Idealistic yet genteel, determined yet decent, Weaver has left behind a venerable legacy, a combination of career and conviction that few others have matched.