R.I.P. Dennis Weaver

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2006/02/27 17:01:00 (permalink)

R.I.P. Dennis Weaver

Dennis Weaver of 'Gunsmoke,' 'McCloud' dies

By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — For a generation of TV viewers, Dennis Weaver was the West.

Dennis Weaver, seen here in 2004, died of complications from cancer Friday in Colorado.
By Mark Mainz, Getty Images

The lanky, Missouri-born Weaver, who died Friday of cancer at the age of 81, was introduced to us in the most popular Western of all time, Gunsmoke, which still airs on TV Land. He would go on to play many, varied roles in a string of successful series and movies. But as befitted a dedicated environmentalist, he would always be most identified with the outdoors — and most often, with horses.

The link began with his nine-year Emmy-winning stint on Gunsmoke as Marshal Matt Dillon's first deputy, Chester, who walked with a limp and talked just as slowly. And the Western connection continued through his final TV roles, as one of the stars of Wildfire, a series set on a horse ranch, and as the on-air host of cable's Encore Westerns service.

In between came what may have been his best role: McCloud, the horse-riding, Taos-cowboy-in-the-big-city detective with the big mustache and the easy grin. Airing with Columbo and McMillan and Wife as part of the NBC Mystery Movie, McCloud became a Sunday staple — and that often-repeated shot of Weaver galloping his horse through a traffic-clogged New York avenue is one of the signature images of '70s TV.

Yet while he was identified with those roles, he wasn't trapped by them. Weaver had star parts in such series as Kentucky Jones, Stone, Buck James, Emerald Point, and the best remembered of the secondary group, Gentle Ben.

He also starred in a number of TV movies, led by Steven Spielberg's 1971 Duel. In this tense small-screen classic, Weaver played an increasingly desperate man in a car that's under attack from a truck whose driver he never sees. There was no horse; just Weaver once again as the brave, resourceful, everyman hero he played so well.

Weaver is survived by three children, three grandchildren, and his wife, Gerry, whom he married in 1945. And, of course, by millions of fans, who have now lost one more link to TV's and America's Western past.

© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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