Monday, February 27, 2006

Dennis Weaver - June 4, 1924-February 24, 2006

They say these things happen in threes so I guess we shouldn't have been surprised to hear of the death of Dennis Weaver but, well we were. More than either Don Knotts or Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver was a constant presence in my TV life. I'm just old enough to remember Weaver when he was playing Marshal Matt Dillon's limping deputy Chester B. Goode in Gunsmoke. He left that role in 1964 and everyone expected him to disappear. Instead he showed up about three years later as Ranger Tom Wedloe in Gentle Ben - he played the father of Ron Howard's little brother Clint, best friend of Ron and Clint's dad Rance and worked with a bear. That series only lasted two years, thanks to the programming weasels at CBS who decided they wanted more "adult" programming. Then came a remake of the Clint Eastwood movie Coogan's Bluff except this one was a pilot called McCloud: Who Killed Miss U.S.A.? and turned into one component of the NBC Mystery Movie along with Columbo and MacMillan and Wife. Around this time he also did a TV movie called Duel directed by some kid named Spielberg (I wonder whatever happened to him?) While he tried a few more times for successful series, none of his later shows lasted more than a season. These included Stone where he played a detective along with his real life son Robby Weaver, Emerald Point N.A.S. with a pre-MacGyver Richard Dean Anderson, and Buck James based on real life surgeon Dr. "Red" Duke. His last regular series role was in 2005 on the ABC Family series Wildfire where he played Nana Visitor's father. And even when he wasn't working in a series he always seemed to be a presence on TV either through theatrical movies or more often made for TV movies or mini-series. He also did voice work on the series Captain Planet and the Planeteers which tied in to his involvement with ecological causes.

Dennis Weaver was born in Joplin Missouri and served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war he went to the University of Oklahoma where he was a star of the track and field team - he finished fifth in the Decathlon in the 1948 US Olympic trials but beat eventual gold medallist Bob Mathias in the 1500 meters. Subsequently Weaver trained at the Actor's Studio in New York and appeared in Streetcar Named Desire with Shelley Winters and toured in Come Back Little Sheba with Shirley Booth. Coming to California under contract to Universal (he was aided in getting the contract by Shelley Winters) he found little work (for example he shows up in an early episode of Dragnet as a forensic scientist) and was actually working as a flower delivery man for $60 a week when he was cast in Gunsmoke playing the role that Parley Baer had played in the radio version of the series (almost - the character in the radio show was named Chester Proudfoot but someone at CBS decided that people would expect someone named Proudfoot to be an Indian; in fact the name Proudfoot is English). In his biography Weaver says that he found the character as written "inane" but "With all my Actors Studio training, I'll correct this character by using my own experiences and drawing from myself." One thing that the 6'2" Weaver did was to give the character a limp so that he'd be noticed alongside James Arness who stood 6'7". The role won Weaver his only Emmy in 1959 as "Best Supporting Actor", although he was nominated twice as "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series" for his work in McCloud. Weaver called that series "the most satisfying role of my career." That series was memorable for McCloud's fish out of water status and his ability to constantly frustrate and luster his New York Boss, Chief Clifford, played by J.D. Cannon. A trademark of the series was the inevitable final chase scene which usually involved Sam McCloud driving some vehicle that had some link to the storyline of the episode, like a fire engine or a carriage with horses. It was an amazingly enjoyable series.

In his personal life Weaver was a committed environmentalist and activist against world hunger. A vegetarian since the 1960s he served as president of an organization called "Love Is Feeding Everyone" (LIFE) which fed 150,000 needy people a week in Los Angeles County. He founded the Institute for Ecolonomics which tried to solve economic and ecological problems, and he spoke to both the United Nations and Congress on issues of pollution and poverty. One of his major personal projects was "Earthship" his solar powered Colorado home built out of tires and old cans. The thick walls kept the structure at a constant temperature. The depth of Weaver's commitment to the environement could be seen in an exchange during an appearance on The Tonight Show. When Jay Leno quipped "When the garbage man comes how does he know where the garbage begins and the house ends?" to which Weaver responded "If we get into the mind-set of saving rather than wasting and utilizing other materials, we can save the Earth." Most recently he's been a major advocate of alternative fuel vehicles, and in 2003 led a cross country caravan of them from Los Angeles to Washington D.C.

Dennis Weaver died on Friday of complications from cancer. He is survived by his wife of over 60 years Gerry Stowell, three sons and three grandchildren.

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