02/27/2006 at 02:00 PM EST
TV star Dennis Weaver, who rose from playing Sheriff Matt Dillon's sidekick Chester on Gunsmoke to his own leading role as a New Mexico deputy solving New York crime in McCloud, died of complications from cancer Friday at his home in Ridgway, in southwestern Colorado, his publicist tells the Associated Press. He was 81.
The Missouri-born Weaver was a struggling actor in Hollywood in 1955, earning $60 a week delivering flowers when he was offered $300 a week for a role in a new CBS series, Gunsmoke. By the end of his nine years with Gunsmoke, he was earning $9,000 a week, and his pronunciation of "Mis-ter Dil-lon" became a household catchphrase – and a favorite of impressionists.
Weaver left the series after seven successful seasons, only to return as a semi-regular – and win an Emmy in 1959 – when other shows that he attempted failed to catch fire. One that eventually did, in 1966, was Gentle Ben, in which he costarred with a bear. That ran for two seasons.
McCloud ran from 1970-1977, with Weaver calling the character Sam McCloud "the most satisfying role of my career."
Weaver was also a high-profile environmental activist – speaking at the United Nations and before Congress and to students about pollution – and served as president of the anti-hunger group Love Is Feeding Everyone (LIFE), which fed 150,000 needy people a week in Los Angeles County. He also founded the Institute of Ecolonomics, which sought solutions to economic and environmental problems.
He's survived by his wife Gerri, as well as sons Rick, Robby and Rusty, and three grandchildren.
Weaver's passing follows the weekend deaths of fellow TV veterans Don Knotts, also 81, and Darren McGavin, 83.