The Real Reason Chester Was Written Off Gunsmoke

Galloping onto CBS in 1955, “Gunsmoke” still leads the herd of TV Westerns as one of the most iconic examples of the genre ever to enthrall viewers eager for clear-cut, heroes-versus-bad-guys entertainment. Starring James Arness as the stolidly courageous Marshal Matt Dillon and Dennis Weaver as his loyal, down-home deputy Chester Goode — along with Amanda Blake as saloon owner Miss Kitty and Milburn Stone as the crusty doc Galen Adams — the series claimed the record as the longest-running scripted primetime franchise for over four decades until it was bested by “The Simpsons” in 2018 (via Entertainment Weekly).

Airing during what’s regarded as the Golden Age of TV Westerns, “Gunsmoke” was just one of 30 different shoot-em-ups, or “horse operas,” on TV in 1959 (via PBS). Along with shows like “Bonanza,” “The Big Valley,” and “The High Chaparral,” the series helped popularize the image of the American cowboy as the ultimate rugged individual fighting for justice on a lawless frontier. As one of those plucky cowpokes, “Gunsmoke” regular Dennis Weaver’s Chester became one the period’s most popular characters, with his familiar drawl and home-spun nature playing off against Arness’ Dillon and his unflappable, earnest lawman persona. So why was Weaver’s fan-favorite character written off the show in its ninth season — ostensibly at the height of the show’s popularity?

Weaver’s exit from Gunsmoke was actually his idea

As noted in a 2002 Television Academy Foundation interview with Dennis Weaver, the decision to exit the hit series was actually made by the actor himself. “I’d done the show for nine years, and … I’d pretty much exhausted all creative possibilities with the character, and I just wanted to do something else,” he said.

Weaver went on to acknowledge that any actor’s decision to leave a certified network hit at the time was a fairly dicey proposition, as far as finding acting gigs on another show or in films. “I felt it was time to move on. I know it was risky doing that because a lot of actors did the same thing and really disappeared.”

Fortunately for Weaver, however, the move proved to be the right one as far as his ongoing career in the industry was concerned. Shortly after departing “Gunsmoke,” the actor was cast in the single-season NBC comedy-drama “Kentucky Jones.” Then, in 1970, Weaver landed another role that would see him in a cowboy hat and occasionally atop a horse, as he took on the lead in the modern-day police drama “McCloud,” which would run until 1977 (per IMDb). All things considered, it seems that Weaver’s desire to move beyond playing Chester was the real reason that the beloved character permanently rode off into the sunset on “Gunsmoke.”

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