I’ve seen the late Dennis Weaver (1924-2006) in a wide variety of vehicles over the years: the TV western Gunsmoke (1955-1964), Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), Way…Way Out (1966) with Jerry Lewis, Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), the TV mini-series Centennial (1977), and the unintentionally hilarious TV movie Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction (1983). But like millions of others I first knew him through his hit series McCloud (1970-77).
The premise of McCloud was an almost total lifting of that of the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie Coogan’s Bluff (1968). In the latter, an Arizona lawman stops over in New York City on a work related errand and finds himself obligated to solve a local crime. In McCloud, Weaver is a Deputy Marshall from Taos, New Mexico who comes to NYC to transport a prisoner and stays on as an expert consultant to help solve murders. The whole hook of the show is the culture clash between this western character and New York. One of the things that makes the show even more enjoyable now than it was then, was that New York was at its nadir during the 1970s: crime, poverty, a drug epidemic, corruption in law enforcement and politics, fiscal woes for the government overall. So everything is kind of enhanced and amplified. If New Yorkers are cynical now, think what they were like then, with the whole city roiling in chaos.
By contrast (and this was played for broad comedy not terribly different from The Beverly Hillbillies), McCloud was cheerful, seemingly naive and inclined to see the best in people. There were memorable scenes of him riding through the streets of New York on a horse. He carried a Colt pistol rather than a regulation NYPD firearm. And he drove his colleagues, like his supervisor, Chief Clifford (J.D. Cannon) crazy, running afoul of regulations, undertaking all sorts of activities on his own initiative. When he was invariably proven right, McCloud would utter his popular catchphrase “There ya go, Chief!”
Familiar character actress Diana Muldaur played his love interest, a lady reporter (calling to mind characters played by Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra movies). Teri Garr played a ditzy lady cop (in a time when female police officers were still rare); African American actor Terry Carter played McCloud’s sometime partner (and babysitter) Sgt. Joe Broadhurst.
As played by Weaver, McCloud came awfully close to being a comedy show, and I watched it primarily from that point of view. It would have been a very different show had it starred the producers’ original choice for the role, Fess Parker. (I can absolutely see why Parker turned the part down. His comfort zone was that warm and fuzzy Disney universe. Dealing with modern urban situations like dope pushers, street hookers, gangs, etc. — can you imagine him interacting with that? I think it would have sunk like a stone).
McCloud’s first season was presented on a show called Four in One; for the remainder of its run it was on the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie program which also gave the world Columbo, McMillan and Wife, Hec Ramsey, Quincy, M.E., et al. In 1989 Weaver reprised his role was a TV movie The Return of Sam McCloud.