- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

''Image is so important in the entertainment business," says Dennis Weaver, who made an indelible mark on television 45 years ago as Chester Goode, Marshal Dillon's loyal deputy on "Gunsmoke," who spoke with a slow drawl, walked with a limp and brewed the meanest pot of coffee in Dodge City, Kan.

"Although I've done some despicable characters in my life including a wife-beater in the TV movie 'Intimate Strangers' and an officer who was a racial bigot in the miniseries 'Pearl' I've been so successful in non-heavy parts that the bad-guy roles have been few and far between," he explains. "Well, now I feel it's time to reinvent myself, if nothing else to take on another challenge."

Mr. Weaver is comfortably back in the saddle at the age of 74, this time wearing a black hat in a telefilm version of "The Virginian" (Sunday 8 to 10 p.m., TNT).

The project, shot in Calgary, Alberta, is based on Owen Wister's classic 1902 Western novel "The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains." It spawned four feature films between 1904 and 1946, plus a long-running TV series (1962 to '71) with James Drury in the title role.

The gritty new version, faithful to the book, is set in the Wyoming Territory and features Bill Pullman as the title character as well as producer and director.

In a story generally credited with introducing the cowboy as an archetypal folk hero, the stoic ranch foreman falls in love with a strong-willed schoolmarm, Molly Stark (Diane Lane); is double-crossed by his best friend, Steve (John Savage); and fights devious rival rancher Sam Balaam (Mr. Weaver) tooth and nail for anything on the hoof within a 1,000-mile radius.

As a pleasant surprise, the original series star, Mr. Drury, puts in a special appearance as the grizzled Rider.

"I decided not to play Balaam as an obvious heavy and more like a guy who will do anything to acquire money and power while sending hired hands to do his dirty work," Mr. Weaver says. "Shortly after we wrapped, I happened to catch the third filmed "The Virginian" on cable TV it was the 1929 release directed by Victor Fleming that stars Gary Cooper in the title role, Walter Huston as Trampas and Mary Brian as Molly. It turned out to be a lesson on how not to play a villain, with people twirling their mustaches and making stock threatening gestures."

Once he was cast last July in "The Virginian," Mr. Weaver and his wife, Gerry (Geraldine Stowell), loaded up their roomy Oldsmobile Intrigue with huge coolers containing their special macrobiotic diets, a couple of cell phones, a guitar and a fax machine. The leisurely trip from their 10,000-square-foot "Earthship" solar-mass home in Ridgway, Colo., to Calgary took four days.

"I'm not afraid to fly I just hate airports and the fact that you're not in control of your destiny," Mr. Weaver says. "Dealing with everything from finding a parking spot for my car to canceled flights is nerve-racking to me. But I also happen to like driving, which gives my wife and I an opportunity to spend some quality time together. On the ground, we also have the opportunity to meet and greet people from all walks of life in restaurants and service stations. I really enjoy it."

Sometimes they encounter risks on terra firma, too, including running out of gas three years ago about four miles outside Cedar City, Utah at 3 a.m. in the middle of a ferocious blizzard.

"We were sitting there with our hazard lights on as cars went whizzing by. Finally, I flipped my headlights on as another car passed us," he recalls. "The guy came to a stop a quarter-mile down the road, then came back to help us. He recognized me when I got out of my car and stepped into his headlights I heard him say, 'My God, Mabel, can you believe this?' "

The rangy, 6-foot-2, screen cowboy was born in Joplin, Mo., where his father toiled for the electric company and farmed 10 lean acres to make ends meet during the Depression. While their mother sold eggs in town on weekends, Mr. Weaver and his brother attended matinees at the local movie theater, plunking down their dimes to watch Westerns and jungle-adventure films. It occurred to him somewhere along the line that acting could be fun.

At 18, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve and spent the next 27 months in the service. Upon his discharge, Mr. Weaver enrolled as a drama major at the University of Oklahoma. Between campus plays, he was a highly competitive athlete on the school track-and-field team.

A year before graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1949, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the decathlon but just missed the cut by placing sixth. Six months later, he nailed down his first professional acting job, understudying the role of college athlete Turk in a Broadway production of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba."

By 1952, he was signed by Universal Pictures and spent the next three years doing minor roles in Westerns, including "Horizons West," "The Redheads From Wyoming" and "The Nebraskan." He was forced to supplement his meager income by working as a handyman and florist delivery man until his pivotal Chester Goode part in "Gunsmoke" came along in 1955. That led to an Emmy for best supporting actor four years later.

Though he continued doing feature films, including "Touch of Evil" (1958) and "The Gallant Hours" (1960), the lean, sympathetic actor seemed tailor-made for television. Hollywood television producers agreed, casting him in such episodic fare as "Kentucky Jones" (1964-65), "Gentle Ben" (1967-69), "McCloud" (1970-79), "Stone" (1980), "Emerald Point, N.A.S." (1983-84) and "Buck James" (1987). Mr. Weaver spent his downtime in countless telefilms, including Steven Spielberg's breakthrough psychological thriller, "Duel" (1971).

Married to his college sweetheart on Oct. 20, 1945, they are the parents of three grown boys Richard (a producer), Robert (a director) and Rustin (a songwriter and producer). Still a lay minister of the nonsectarian Self-Realization Fellowship and active in a thousand good causes, Mr. Weaver is focused on the Institute of Ecolonomics, an organization he founded in 1993 to explore ways that economics and ecology can be integrated for mutual benefit.

"It seems to me that corporations and environmentalists are two halves of the same whole," he says. "There is no reason why entrepreneurs can't do business in an environmentally correct way and at the same time increase their bottom line."

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