While we're huge fans of Marshal Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke wouldn't have been the same without Dillon's trusty partner, Deputy Chester Goode. Dennis Weaver brought the character to life, proving that he had a knack for playing men of the law in Hollywood. Also well known for playing a cowboy in the Big Apple in McCloud, he was one of TV's greats who was even instrumental in helping launch the career of legendary director Steven Spielberg.
Weaver was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1924. He grew up with a knack for sports, proving himself to be a football star at Joplin High School before he joined the track team at the University of Oklahoma. He even nearly qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1948. Like most men at the time, Weaver served in the military during World War II as a pilot in the United States Navy. After not making the Olympic trials for the decathlon with OU, Weaver married his childhood sweetheart Gerry Stowell and moved to New York to try to make it as an actor.
Though Weaver definitely had some success on Broadway by landing a role in Come Back, Little Sheba, it was incredibly helpful when he met Shelley Winters at the Actors Studio. Winters helped Weaver land a contract with Universal Studios. Despite appearing in multiple films as a result of his contract, Weaver was stuck working random odd jobs to support his wife and three children including selling women's pantyhose and delivering flowers around Los Angeles. His career really wouldn't fully take off as a full-time actor until he landed the role of Chester opposite James Arness, Milburn Stone, and Amanda Blake on Gunsmoke. Apparently, Weaver didn't initially impress casting during his first interview. He ended up landing the role after finding inspiration from an old college classmate.
"I remember at the University of Oklahoma there was a kid from Okarche [Oklahoma]... he had such a thick accent you could hardly understand him," Weaver explained to TV Legends. "I used to imitate him at parties."
Weaver asked the producers, "I think you know what you mean, will you give me another chance?" It's a good thing they did because who could imagine Chester without that iconic accent?
To say Gunsmoke went on to become a historic television series is an understatement. It's one of the longest-running dramas of all time, with new and old viewers still enjoying frequent re-reruns today. Weaver ended up winning an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role on the series which ran until 1975. He even served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild.
But Weaver isn't only memorable for starring on TV shows. He appeared in the TV movie Duel, Spielberg's directorial debut in 1971. The director ended up casting Weaver after seeing him in an Orson Welles movie, clearly an important decision for both of their careers.
"I had always been a fan of Dennis Weaver, because he played the night watchman in Touch of Evil," Spielberg is quoted as saying in the book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career. "I probably wouldn't have thought of Dennis Weaver, had it not been for Touch of Evil."
Weaver is also known for starring in Seven Angry Men, the ABC series Buck James, Emerald Point N.A.S on CBS, Kentucky Jones on NBC, The Virginian, Ten Wanted Men, The Twilight Zone, and more. But the beloved actor was so much more than a performer. He was also a passionate environmentalist.
Weaver and his wife Gerry moved from Los Angeles out to Ridgway, Colorado in the 80s where they moved into a very special house. Known as "Earthship," the home was completely constructed of recycled materials and was part of the sustainable living movement founded by New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds. It is estimated that there are roughly 1,000 Earthships built around the world composed of anything from old car parts to tires.