Gunsmoke's Dennis Weaver dies at age 81

Dennis Weaver, best known for his role as Chester on the long-running TV western Gunsmoke, succumbed Friday to cancer at his ranch in Colorado. He was 81.

Weaver was born in 1924, in Joplin, Missouri. He married his high school sweetheart, Gerry Stowell, in 1945. He was a track star in his college years and placed sixth in the decathlon tryouts for the 1948 Olympics.

He began acting in the early 1950s, and in 1955, he got a role that would assure him a place in TV history: the limping, goofy character of Chester in the classic western series Gunsmoke. Weaver said he almost didn't get the part but asked the producers if he could audition a second time; when he read the part with a humorous, country accent, he won it. Weaver, who stood 6 feet, 2 inches, feared he would be overshadowed when he was onscreen with series-star James Arness, who towered at 6 feet, 9 inches. Weaver's solution was to give Chester a noticeable limp.

Weaver left Gunsmoke after nine years and went on to further success in films and TV, such as Steven Spielberg's classic road-rage thriller Duel, and the detective series McCloud, which ran for seven years. Weaver won two Emmys for his portrayal of McCloud, the ranger from New Mexico who chases crooks to the Big Apple and iconically rides a horse through Manhattan streets. During his time on the show McCloud, Weaver was elected president of the Screen Actor's Guild for several years.

In his personal life, Weaver was a vegetarian and committed environmental activist. He built a 10,000-square-foot, environmentally friendly home in Colorado, called Earthship; made of predominantly recycled material such as tires and aluminum cans, it harnesses solar power for electricity.

Weaver is survived by his wife, three children, and several grandchildren.