Thrilling Days of Yesteryear commemorates the 86th natal anniversary of a true television icon: Dennis Weaver, who catapulted to boob tube fame playing Chester Goode, the sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness, pictured with Weaver above) on the veteran TV oater Gunsmoke. Weaver, who would win an Emmy in 1959 as Best Supporting Actor was a regular on the program until 1964 when, growing weary of what he felt was a confining trap, he left the series and moved on to his own program in the fall as veterinarian Kentucky Jones (1964-65). This NBC series was short-lived, but Weaver rebounded two years later with the successful Gentle Ben—a show about a six-hundred-pound bear convinced he was Lassie. Okay, I’m kidding a little—and Weaver did not play the bruin, but rather the father of the kid (Clint Howard) who owned the ursine creature, Florida Everglades park ranger Tom Wedloe.
Because I never got to see the black-and-white Gunsmokes until much later on in life—and because I never cared for Gentle Ben since the bear refused to eat Clint Howard—my memory of Dennis Weaver remains his signature role as transplanted cop Marshal Sam McCloud on the McCloud segments of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (“McCloud!”). Later on, of course, I would become more familiar with the actor in his roles on Centennial, Emerald Point N.A.S. and Buck James—as well as his unforgettable portrayal as a man menaced by a psychotic trucker in the TV-movie classic Duel (1971). But whether it was roles in films like Dragnet (1954), Touch of Evil (1958) or Duel at Diablo (1966)…I always enjoyed seeing his familiar countenance…and television hasn’t been the same since he shuffled off this mortal coil in 2006.