Dennis Weaver found out he earned a role on Gunsmoke when he was out delivering flowers.
The guy who played Chester Goode on this iconic western had a young family to feed. He worked odd jobs around his auditions. And his audition for Gunsmoke obviously impressed, especially when he gave Chester an obvious sense of humor.
Weaver also gave Chester a limp. He knew he was playing second fiddle to James Arness’ Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. So he figured the sidekick needed to differentiate himself from Arness, who stood 6-foot-7.
Weaver stayed with Gunsmoke for nine seasons and 290 episodes. His first episode was Matt Gets It. His final one was Bently, which was named after a man who already was dead. IMDb notes that Weaver’s last line on Gunsmoke was “I think maybe I’ll take you down to the stage.” He said that to a widow, whose husband was accused of murder.
Gunsmoke never really said why Chester left. But Weaver had a good reason for saying bye to Dodge City. It was about being second fiddle. Weaver figured he wanted to try and be a star.
“The reason I got away from Gunsmoke was that I wanted to leave the second banana role,” Weaver told the Toronto Star in a 1987 interview. “It was a very important — and frightening — step for me career-wise. I was a little naive. Gunsmoke was the only series that I had done up to that point and I thought, well, I’d just get another series and I’d get a successful one. But that’s not the way things happened.”
After Gunsmoke, It Took Weaver Six Years to Find McCloud
You have to remember that Weaver was relatively new to the acting business when he joined the Gunsmoke cast. His first dream was to make the 1948 Olympic team as a decathlete. But he finished sixth in the trials and didn’t make the cut to head to London. Still, he stuck around New York and enrolled at the Actors Studio. New friend Shelley Winters helped him land a contract at Universal Studios.
When Weaver left Gunsmoke in 1964, he already had an Emmy in the trophy case, so there was reason to think he could be a leading man and not a sidekick. Five months after he departed Dodge City, Weaver picked up his first starring role on the series Kentucky Jones. Unfortunately, for Weaver, that series only lasted 26 episodes.
It took him until 1970 to find his post-Gunsmoke starring vehicle. He stuck with a Western theme, but it was juxtaposed against big city life. In McCloud, Weaver played a deputy marshal from New Mexico who was reassigned to Manhattan. The Clint Eastwood movie Coogan’s Bluff inspired the series.
Weaver earned two Emmy nominations for Best Lead Actor, so he finally succeeded in being the star, not the sidekick. For his work on both Gunsmoke and McCloud, Weaver made it to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a well-deserved honor. He died in 2006 at the age of 81.