The truth about Dennis Weaver leaving Gunsmoke
Weaver: ''I tried to quit the program twice before.''
Imagine stepping away from one of the most successful shows on television. It seems shocking, but it happens all the time, especially in classic TV. Lots of actors go an entire career without landing a hit show. It might seem unfathomable to leave at the top, and yet there are Wayne Rogers, Larry Linville, and McLean Stevenson, and that's just on M*A*S*H. Frank Gorshin wasn't offered the money he deserved, so he stepped away as The Riddler in Batman. Don Knotts left Mayberry for Tinsel Town. Walking away from television for movies is a prominent reason, but many others exist.
Dennis Weaver labored at odd jobs for years while acting parts were scarce. In the early '50s, he made anywhere from $5 to $7.50 a day to support his wife and firstborn son. His fortunes changed, of course, when he was cast as Chester on Gunsmoke, a show that made him a millionaire by 38.
So why then, after 9 years of steady, bountiful employment, would a star pack up and leave a show? In a 1964 interview with The Hartford Courant, Weaver explained his mindset as he quit Gunsmoke.
"After almost 10 years," said Weaver, "I want to walk without a limp. In Gunsmoke, I've exhausted all the dimensions of Chester. There's nothing I can do with that character anymore. I knew it some time ago, and I tried to quit the program twice before.
"Two years ago I did a variety show pilot, TV Tonight. I was a combination host and master of ceremonies. It didn't sell. Last year I worked in another pilot, Giant Step. I played a high school vice principal. That didn't sell either. In both instances, I returned to Gunsmoke because financially that was the best thing to do. But this time I'm severing the umbilical cord for good. [NBC's new show] Kentucky Jones has been bought and scheduled. I own 25 percent of the package, and I'll get a weekly guarantee of about $5,000."
Compared to Gunsmoke's 625 episodes, Kentucky Jones produced 26.
"I want to grow as an actor, to create, to expand. I know I'll never be lucky enough to find another show like Gunsmoke, but in all fairness to myself, I can't afford to make it my whole life's work."