Dennis Weaver

Star of 'Gunsmoke' and 'McCloud'

William Dennis Weaver, actor: born Joplin, Missouri 4 June 1924; married 1945 Gerry Stowell (three sons); died Ridgway, Colorado 24 February 2006.

Dennis Weaver was familiar in his Stetson to television viewers worldwide - first as the limping deputy sheriff, Chester Goode, to James Arness's Matt Dillon in the classic western series Gunsmoke, then as the cowboy- lawman causing mayhem in the big city in McCloud. "McCloud was the kind of role I left Gunsmoke to get," he said. "I wanted to be a leading man instead of a second banana."

But the second banana was part of one of the biggest success stories in television's so-called Golden Age. He played the sheriff's number two during Gunsmoke's early years (1955-64), speaking with a twang and always calling his 6ft 7in boss "Muster Dellon".

The series, set in Dodge City during the late 19th century and styled as an "adult" western, but effectively a weekly morality play, began on radio and was given John Wayne's seal of approval on screen when the film star - who turned down the lead role but recommended Arness - introduced the first episode. (In Britain, the programme was entitled Gun Law.) It continued until 1975, making it television's longest-running western, but Weaver - whose performance won him an Emmy Best Supporting Actor award in 1959 - left halfway through, looking to be top banana himself.

He eventually resurfaced in McCloud (1970-77), as the law enforcer from Taos, New Mexico, despatched to New York to study policing methods in the Big Apple's 27th Precinct. But, wearing a cowpoke hat, sheepskin jacket and boots, Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud went his own way and treated Manhattan like the Wild West.

Inspired by the 1968 Clint Eastwood film Coogan's Bluff, the series had its tongue firmly in its cheek. McCloud was watched over by Police Chief Peter B. Clifford (J.D. Cannon), who was bemused as he watched his horse-riding subordinate bring rush-hour traffic to a halt on the streets of New York. Talking in a folksy, "down on the range" manner, McCloud brought with him from down south the catchphrase "There you go".

Weaver was himself from south-west Missouri, born in 1924 in Joplin, where his father worked for the electric company and farmed 10 acres during the Depression. Weaver excelled as a track and field athlete, served in the US Navy during the Second World War, then graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a fine arts degree.

Although, in 1948, he came sixth in the United States's decathon trials for the London Olympics, he opted for a stage career and studied at the Actors Studio, New York. After making his professional début as understudy for the role of a college athlete, Turk, in the Broadway production of Come Back, Little Sheba (Booth Theatre, 1950), he toured in that play with Shelley Winters and Sidney Blackmer, before gaining further stage experience in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (as Stanley Kowalski), and Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

On the recommendation of Winters, Universal signed Weaver to a film contract and he made his screen début in the western Horizons West (alongside Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson, 1952). Twenty pictures followed, many of them westerns, as well as five bit parts in the television police series Dragnet (1954-55), before Weaver landed the role of Chester Goode in Gunsmoke.

He then had moderate success in two family dramas, as a vet and horse trainer who adopts a Chinese orphan in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and the park ranger, Tom Wedloe, in Gentle Ben (1967-69), featuring a friendly, 600lb black bear.

While he was taking off as McCloud, Weaver also made waves in an American television film that gained cinema screenings around the world. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Duel (1971) starred the actor as a salesman driving along California backroads who finds himself in a nightmare tussle with a menacing petrol tanker.

He never quite left his western background behind, starring in the television series Buck James (1987-88) as a Texas hospital doctor who has a passion for ranching and the patriarch, Henry Ritter, trying to save his ranch from financial ruin while offering a new life to an 18-year-old girl out of a teen detention centre in Wildfire (2005).

Weaver was President of the Screen Actors Guild, 1973-75, and donned his western gear for Great Western Bank commercials from 1982, a role he took over from John Wayne after "The Duke's" death.

A keen environmentalist, he had his solar-powered, 8,500sq ft, 16-room Colorado home built out of 3,000 recycled tyres and 3,000 aluminium cans and called it his "Earthship". He also founded the Institute of Ecolonomics to tackle both economic and environmental problems. Appropriately, when he reprised one of his most famous characters in the television film The Return of Sam McCloud (1989), the law enforcer had become a New Mexico senator fighting for new environmental laws.

Anthony Hayward

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