Tuesday, February 28, 2006

“There Ya Go,” Off into the Sunset

[[O B I T]] * This has definitely not been a happy week for fans of classic American television. First, Don Knotts (The Andy Griffith Show) died. Then Darren McGavin (The Outsider, Kolchak: The Night Stalker) went to his grave. And finally, just yesterday, we learned that Dennis Weaver, the gangling actor who earned fame playing both Deputy Chester B. Goode on Gunsmoke and U.S. Marshal Sam McCloud on McCloud, perished at his Colorado home last Friday from complications of cancer. He was 81 years old.

Born William Dennis Weaver in Joplin, Missouri, on June 4, 1924, the future TV celebrity is said to have first felt the bite from the acting bug during his boyhood. He went on to study the dramatic arts and make a name for himself as a track standout at the University of Oklahoma, before joining the U.S. Navy Air Corps as a pilot during World War II. In 1945, Weaver eloped with Gerry Stowell, whom he’d evidently met during a junior college “sock-hop.” (The couple eventually reared a trio of sons.) Three years later, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, hoping to compete in the decathlon competition, but failed to make the cut. Instead, he moved to New York City, determined to fulfill his dream of an acting career.

Weaver enjoyed some early success, making his Broadway stage debut in Come Back, Little Sheba, which caught the attention of Universal Studios and led to his moving to Hollywood. He first appeared on film in The Redhead from Wyoming (1953). However, the character roles Weaver was offered back then--many of them in western films--weren’t exactly big moneymakers, and he had to supplement his income by doing odd jobs that included peddling pantyhose and vacuum cleaners, and delivering flowers. Finally, following appearances in such TV series as Dragnet and The Twilight Zone, and after a turn in the Orson Welles/Charlton Heston film Touch of Evil (1958), he landed the part of Marshal Matt Dillon’s limping, drawling sidekick in Gunsmoke, a role he’d inhabit for the next nine years (1955-1964), and that in 1959 would win him an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In 1967, Weaver signed on to a second weekly series, Gentle Ben. This time he at least got to play the adult male lead, Everglades park ranger Tom Wedloe, but he was frequently upstaged by the lovable, trouble-prone bear of the title. (The series also featured Clint Howard, brother of child actor-turned-director Ron Howard.) It was only a year after Ben’s cancellation in 1969 that Weaver initially stepped into the role of modern-day western lawman named Sam McCloud, in the TV movie McCloud: Who Killed Miss USA? (aka “Portrait of a Dead Girl”). The fish-out-of-water premise was certainly not new, and would be periodically borrowed in the decades since (as it was for 2003-04’s Keen Eddie). In fact, McCloud found its obvious inspiration in the 1969 Clint Eastwood movie Coogan’s Bluff, in which Eastwood acted the part of a sheriff, fresh from the dusty reaches of one of Arizona’s more peaceful quarters, who pursues a felon to decidedly unpeaceful Manhattan, and there shows the city slickers that his frontier-born talents can be put to good use. McCloud hewed to much the same path, as Richard Meyers explained in his authoritative 1981 book, TV Detectives:
In [Who Killed Miss USA?], Dennis Weaver plays a Taos, New Mexico, lawman who comes to New York to extradite a subpoenaed witness, only to see the witness shanghaied and find himself handcuffed to a fence along the highway.

From there he gets involved with the murder of a pageant contestant and runs afoul of the NYPD in the person of Chief Peter B. Clifford, a man not so far removed from the Chief on
Get Smart. McCloud is not a bumbler, he is just an affable, matchstick-chewing, cowboy-hatted and booted Westerner who carries a walnut-handled six-gun and says ‘There ye [sic] go’ a lot. It was as if Deputy Chester Goode of Gunsmoke ... had lost his limp and gotten promoted.
With the marshal officially transferred--for technique-observation purposes--to the New York Police Department, and under the reluctant supervision of Chief Clifford (J.D. Cannon), McCloud debuted in the fall of 1970 as one of four rotating series (the other three being Night Gallery, San Francisco International Airport, and Steven Spielberg’s The Psychiatrist) in a single timeslot. The next fall, however, McCloud was joined in a 90-minute NBC Mystery Movie rotation with two new series: McMillan and Wife (starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as a crime-solving San Francisco police commissioner and his sexy, younger, and somewhat kooky spouse) and Columbo (featuring Peter Falk as a deceptively brilliant Los Angeles police lieutenant). McCloud hung in there until 1977, through 46 episodes, winning Weaver four Emmy Award nominations as well as pretty near universal recognition. After McCloud road off into the sunset, Weaver worked in a variety of TV films, including 1978’s Centennial (a mini-series based on the James Michener novel), The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd (1980), and 1989’s The Return of Sam McCloud, in which the frontier marshal was shown to have become a New Mexico senator doing battle with polluters. The actor also tried his hand at a smattering of other series, including Stone (1980, in which Weaver played an L.A. detective who was also a best-selling author), Emerald Point N.A.S. (1983-84--basically a soap opera set on a U.S. naval base), and Buck James (1987-88, which put Weaver in scrubs as the emergency room chief at a Texas hospital, who’s also devoted to ranching). He later played the colorful part of Buffalo Bill Cody in the TV serial Lonesome Dove, appeared with Tom Skerritt in the 2000 broadcast version of High Noon, and even provided the voice of an aging Hollywood cowboy in a 2002 episode of The Simpsons. He made his last appearance in 2005 in the ABC Family Channel series Wildfire.

As The New York Times notes in its obituary of the man, though, Weaver did more than just act. He released albums of his country music, wrote poetry as well as a 2001 autobiography, All the World’s a Stage, and was passionately involved in alternative fuel projects and other environmental causes. At the time of his demise, Weaver--a vegetarian and longtime yoga enthusiast--was living with his wife of half a century in Ridgway, Colorado, inhabiting “an earthship: an almost 10,000-square-foot, solar-powered home ... constructed from about 3,000 recycled tires and 300,000 tin and aluminum cans.”

I wasn’t always a McCloud fan; I thought the early episodes were rather unbelievable, and I much preferred Columbo, McMillan & Wife, Hec Ramsey, and other NBC crime dramas in the mid-1970s. However, Weaver’s aw-shucksing do-gooder grew on me over the years, and after hearing about his death, I had to rush out and find the DVD of McCloud’s first and second seasons. In an era when crime series are bigger on forensic details than distinctive characters, and when touches of humor in such series are as rare as death-bed confessions, it’s hard not to look back with nostalgia on the adventures of a rustic peace officer who didn’t think twice about riding down Manhattan thoroughfares on horseback, politely doffed his cowboy hat to the ladies, and never swore to bring the bad guys in “dead or alive” unless he intended to deliver.

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