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The Third One: Dennis Weaver

By RD Heldenfels Published: February 27, 2006

Many folks insist that deaths come in threes, and so it wasn't exactly a surprise that the news of Dennis Weaver's passing came today -- on the heels of Don Knotts and Darren McGavin.


I don't have as strong feelings about Weaver as I do about Knotts and McGavin, although his resume was certainly impressive.  (He was also outspoken on environmental and political issues. See www.dennisweaver.com. ) And don't just go by TV.


Take a look back at him in Orson Welle's ''Touch of Evil'' for evidence. His official biography from 1969 mentions an early stage performance as Stanley in ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' -- opposite Shelley Winters. He and Winters were colleagues at the Actors Studio in New York, and Winters helped get Weaver a movie contract at her studio. He worked as a director and acting teacher.


But in terms of the public he was, to the end, a TV guy. His final work was for TV, in a role on the ABC Family series ''Wildfire'' and in special segments for the Encore Westerns channel.


Before that, there had been an array of TV series, most successfully in ''Gunsmoke'' and ''McCloud,'' but also in the likes of ''Kentucky Jones'' and ''Gentle Ben.'' And we have to mention ''Duel,'' a TV movie by an up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg; Weaver was crucial to the movie's man-against-machine story working.


That 1969 bio notes that he was not happy in the movies, where the better roles at his studio went to Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Jeff Chandler while he played ''small roles in almost every western the company produced.''


Then, in 1955, came ''Gunsmoke.''  As Chester, Marshal Dillon's limping sidekick, Weaver was both memorable and easily parodied. He could have made a living just by staying on the show but decided to move on after a decade. ''I wanted to grow as an actor, to create, to expand,'' he once said. ''From the standpoint of money and security it could not be beat. But money is a drag when you let it become an end instead of a means. ... In addition, I just couldn't make one character my whole life's work.''


Instead, he took the name recognition from ''Gunsmoke'' and made an ongoing, respectable career.

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