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TV's McCloud is dead at 81

Dennis Weaver, the diffident deputy Chester Goode in the TV classic western Gunsmoke and the canny New Mexico deputy solving New York City crime in McCloud, has died. He was 81.

Mr. Weaver died of complications from cancer Friday (Feb. 24, 2006) at his home in Ridgway, Colo., his publicist, Julian Myers, said Monday.

"He was a wonderful man and a fine actor, and we will all miss him," Burt Reynolds, who played alongside Mr. Weaver in Gunsmoke, said Monday.

In 1955, Mr. Weaver was a struggling actor in Hollywood, earning $60 a week delivering flowers, when he was offered $300 a week for a role in a new CBS series. After nine years on Gunsmoke as Chester, whom he played with a stiff-legged gait, he was earning $9,000 a week.

When Mr. Weaver auditioned for the series, he found the character of Chester "inane." He wrote in his 2001 autobiography, All the World's a Stage, that he said to himself: "With all my Actors Studio training, I'll correct this character by using my own experiences and drawing from myself."

The result was a well-rounded character that appealed to audiences, especially with his drawling "Mis-ter Dil-lon."

At the end of seven hit seasons, Mr. Weaver sought other horizons. He announced his departure, but the failures of pilots for series of his own caused him to return to Gunsmoke on a limited basis for two more years. The role brought him an Emmy in the 1958-59 season.

Along with Reynolds, who played Quint Asper from 1962 to '65, two other of the series' major cast members survive: James Arness, the iconic Marshall Matt Dillon, and Buck Taylor, who played Newly O'Brien from 1967 to '75.

In 1966, Mr. Weaver starred with a 600-pound black bear in Gentle Ben, about a family that adopts a bear as a pet. The series was well-received, but after two seasons, CBS decided that the network needed more adult entertainment and canceled it.

Next came Sam McCloud, which Mr. Weaver called "the most satisfying role of my career."

The McCloud series, which ran from 1970 to '77, put a no-nonsense lawman from Taos, N.M., onto the crime-ridden streets of New York. His wild-west tactics, such as riding his horse through Manhattan traffic, drove local policemen crazy, but he always solved the case.

Mr. Weaver appeared in several movies, including Touch of Evil, Ten Wanted Men, Gentle Giant, Seven Angry Men, Dragnet, Way ... Way Out and The Bridges at Toko-Ri.

Mr. Weaver also was an activist for protecting the environment and combating world hunger.

He served as president of Love Is Feeding Everyone (LIFE), which fed 150,000 needy people a week in Los Angeles County. He founded the Institute of Ecolonomics, which sought solutions to economic and environmental problems. He spoke at the United Nations and Congress, as well as to college students and schoolchildren about fighting pollution and starvation.

"Earthship" was the most visible of Mr. Weaver's crusades. He and his wife, Gerry, built a solar-powered Colorado home out of recycled tires and cans. The thick walls helped keep the inside temperature even year-round.

"If we get into the mind-set of saving rather than wasting and utilizing other materials, we can save the Earth," Mr. Weaver said.

The tall, slender actor came by his Midwestern twang naturally. He was born June 4, 1924, in Joplin, Mo., where he excelled in high school drama and athletics. After Navy service in World War II, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma and nearly qualified for the Olympic decathlon.

He studied at the Actors Studio in New York and appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Shelley Winters and toured in Come Back, Little Sheba with Shirley Booth.

Universal Studio signed Mr. Weaver to a contract in 1952 but found little work for him. He freelanced in features and television until he landed Gunsmoke.

Mr. Weaver appeared in dozens of TV movies, the most notable being Duel in 1971. It was a bravura performance for Mr. Weaver, who played a driver menaced by a large truck that followed him down a mountain road, and its fledgling director, Steven Spielberg. The film was released in theaters in 1983, after Spielberg had directed some box office smashes.

Most recently, Mr. Weaver was seen in ABC Family's original series Wildfire as the eccentric owner of a thoroughbred racing ranch.