William Dennis Weaver was born June 6, 1924 in Joplin, Missouri
. He is the son of Walter Weaver and Lena Prather. His ancestry was English, Irish, Scottish, Osage, and Cherokee. Weaver was a track star in high school. During World War II
he served in the US Naval Reserves and spent 2 years in the Naval Air Force
. Following the war, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma
where he renewed his love of track. He competed in the Olympic Trials
for 1948 where he finished 6th in the decathlon
, and first in the 1500 meters, beating future gold medalist Bob Mathias
. He failed to make the team as he finished 6th overall and there were places for only the top 3. He graduated in 1948 with his BFA degree.
Weaver wed his childhood sweatheart Geraldine (Gerry) Stowell in 1945. They were to have 3 sons during their union. The sons are named Rick, Rob, and Rusty. Dennis and his wife Gerry were married until his death in 2006.
Off to Find the Lights
Weaver had drama in his blood and set off to New York to try his hand at acting upon prompting from his college friend Lonny Chapman. His first job was as an understudy to Chapman in his role as Turk in the play Come Back, Little Sheba. Later when the play went on a national tour, Weaver took that role as his own. Weaver then studied at the Actor's Studio under Lee Strasberg. He was noticed by Shelley Winters in the Tennessee Williams play Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton. She recommended him to Universal Pictures, who signed him to a contract. From 1952 through 1955 he had several minor roles, then ended his association with Universal. Shelley Winters hadn't forgotten Weaver, inviting him to join her in a Los Angeles production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He held the role of Stanley Kowalski and in the opinion of some surpassed Marlon Brando's rendering of the same role.
While under contract to Universal he had been allowed to do work for other studios. He appeared in The Nebraskan in 1953, Dragnet in 1954, and Seven Angry Men in 1955.
His break came when Charles Marquis Warren, director of Seven Angry Men asked him to test for the part of Chester Goode, deputy to TV's Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. At that time he was supporting himself as a floral deliveryman. He went from making $60.00 a week delivering flowers to $300.00 a week acting. When he left the show, he was making $9,000.00 a week. He gave Chester Goode a noticeable limp to set him apart and make him more visible. Weaver, though 6'2"himself, felt dwarfed by the huge James Arness, who towered at 6'7". He earned an Emmy Award in 1959 as Best Supporting Actor for his work in the series. He stayed with the part until 1964 when he left the show to escape being known as just a supporting player. In 1958 he had formed a singing trio along with fellow Gunsmoke stars Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone, touring fairs and rodeos successfully.
A slight detour
Gunsmoke had been his only series to date and he thought he could just jump on board another successful series and continue without pause. He was seriously in error. He had a series later in 1964 named Kentucky Jones, but it lasted only 6 months. His next regular series wasn't until 1967 when he landed the lead in Gentle Ben, which was also short-lived.
On Top Again
Finally in 1970 Weaver struck pay dirt again as Taos, New Mexico lawman Sam McCloud. The show, aptly named McCloud, was a hit and continued until 1977. The character was patterned after Clint Eastwood's character in Coogan's Bluff. McCloud was on loan to the NYPD on a seemingly permanent basis, and used his rural wit and common sense to solve crimes that stymied his big city brethren. His work on the series led to two more Emmy nominations, in 1974 and again in 1975.
While acting on the hit series Weaver kept his hand in on other projects. He appeared in Stephen Spielberg's directorial debut in his 1971 film Duel, in which Weaver was a traveling salesman terrorized by an unknown assailant. He was Abraham Lincoln in The Great Man's Whiskers. Weaver appeared in the western film A Man Called Sledge. He appeared in Emerald Point NAS from 1983 until 1984. His latest TV role was on Wildfire.
Off the Screen
Dennis Weaver supported George McGovern in his 1972 bid to become President of the United States. In 1973 Weaver became President of the Screen Actor's Guild, an office he held until 1975. Weaver was an environmentalist and vegetarian. He neither smoked nor drank, and practiced yoga and meditation. A confirmed liberal, along with fellow actress Valerie Harper he formed LIFE, (Love Is Feeding Everyone), a charity which provides over 100,000 meals a week to the needy and downtrodden of Los Angeles. As part of his environmental beliefs, he and his wife Gerry built and reside in a 'Earthship' home built almost entirely of recycled materials. He promoted being independent of fossil fuels and recycling everything possible. He founded The Institute of Ecolonomics,a marriage of economics and ecology. He was involved with John Denver's Windstar Foundation and with The Ark Trust in their annual Genesis Awards which honors those in the media who highlight the plight of animals.
For his work on behalf of the TV industry Weaver was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also has a star on Trail of Fame, Dodge City, Kansas. In 1981 he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Dennis Weaver died at his home from complications from cancer on February 24, 2006.
Dennis Weaver achieved what many aspiring actors only dream about, creating memorable characters. Weaver did it not once, but twice with his memorable Chester Goode in Gunsmoke and yet again with Marshal Sam McCloud in the TV series McCloud. He also walked the walk in living out his convictions concerning the environment and his support of animals. He made a lasting impact both on screen and off, affecting the lives of a multitude with his untiring efforts.