‘Gunsmoke’: Dennis Weaver Appeared in Steven Spielberg’s First Movie

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Gunsmoke was Dennis Weaver’s first big role. And he learned he landed the part while he was out delivering flowers. That was his side hustle to pay the bills until he started earning a living in Hollywood.

Weaver played Deputy Chester Goode and was Marshal Matt Dillon’s right-hand man in Dodge City from 1955 to 1964. Earning a steady paycheck was great news for Weaver’s family. Weaver already was married with a wife and a son.

Weaver’s acting career was set up, in part, because of athletics. Weaver aspired to be an Olympian in the decathlon. Running track had helped him earn a degree from the University of Oklahoma. He tried out for the 1948 Games but finished sixth in the trials. However, he stuck around New York to study at the Actor’s Studio, It was there he met actress Shelley Winters, who helped him land a contract in 1952 with Universal Studios.

Weaver tried to use his classic training when he auditioned for Gunsmoke. But he quickly ditched that approach when the director asked him for something humorous. He said he mimicked the accent of a kid he knew in high school. It worked. Weaver was the first person cast for Gunsmoke and he earned an Emmy in 1959 for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama.

But Weaver desired to do more in his acting career than playing Chester Goode. Weaver wanted to be a star and he wasn’t going to get that playing a Gunsmoke deputy.

Dennis Weaver Said He Needed To Get Away From Gunsmoke Because He Wanted To Be a Leading Man

“The reason I got away from Gunsmoke was that I wanted to leave the second banana role,” Weaver told the Toronto Star in 1987. “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.”

By 1970, Weaver found a starring vehicle in McCloud. He was a lawman in New York.

But Weaver was in movies, too. He caught the eye of a young director named Steven Spielberg, who cast him in Duel. That was Spielberg’s first-ever movie. This was 1971, so he still was four years away from Jaws, his first blockbuster. Then came E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones. And following those hits, there was Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park.

Duel Was Spielberg’s First Movie

But first, there was Duel, a perfect TV horror movie. Dennis Weaver played a salesman who was chased down the highway by a crazed tanker truck driver.

Spielberg wrote about casting Weaver in his book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career. Another Weaver film caught his eye.

“I had always been a fan of Dennis Weaver, because he played the night watchman in Touch of Evil,” Spielberg wrote. “I probably wouldn’t have thought of Dennis Weaver, had it not been for Touch of Evil.”

Weaver died in 2006. He was 81. Spielberg probably still is the best director in the business. And he remembered his first star. Spielberg called Weaver a “wonderful actor,” who wanted to “make the world a better place.” Weaver also was an environmental activist and even had his home in Colorado built with renewable items.

“He was a willing and enthusiastic participant in much of the physical driving that was at the center of ‘Duel,’ Spielberg said.

So, Gunsmoke hovered over Hollywood long after Chester Goode left Dodge City.

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