Question: A while ago you wrote about Columbo. What was the name of the cowboy cop who used to be on with him? — Jane S., Gorham, Maine
Televisionary: That "cowboy cop" was one Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud (Dennis Weaver), who journeyed from his native Taos, N.M., to New York City chasing an escaped prisoner and then decided to stay for a spell. McCloud debuted in 1970 in a series of special movies and then was put into rotation with McMillan and Wife and Columbo as part of the NBC Mystery Movie, and stayed there until it left the air in August 1977.
In a classic fish-out-of-water set-up, McCloud was a folksy but capable detective who, after being temporarily assigned to a precinct headed by grouchy Chief Peter Clifford (J.D. Cannon), found himself forever giving his new superior ulcers with his Wild-West style. Of course, Clifford could never argue with the fact that McCloud always got his man (and viewers and critics couldn't really argue with the hackneyed concept since those behind the show never seemed to take it too seriously).
Funny thing was, though Weaver played, as you say, a cowboy cop after firmly establishing his Western credentials playing Deputy Chester Goode on the classic Gunsmoke for nine years, in real life he isn't quite the type to enjoy a hand-rolled cigarette and a shot of whiskey after devouring a huge T-bone. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink and doesn't eat meat. And if that doesn't blow the cowboy image away, he's also a devoted yoga practitioner. Sure, you say, that's not so odd these days, but you can imagine how it may have stopped fans back then when he told them about those practices, his membership in the Self-Realization Fellowship (a group that believes in, among other things, reaching God through meditation and clean living) and his avoidance of pasteurized milk and refined sugar. That is, when he told them.
"One day in Texas," Weaver told TV Guide in 1970, "I was greeted by a local dignitary. He put his arm around me and said, 'Son, I'm gonna throw you the biggest damn barbecue you ever seen.' I didn't have the heart to tell him I didn't eat meat. I politely stalled him."
Simply trying to get by without eating the previously mentioned products, white rice, white flour and anything else that isn't organic could be a tall order in the early '70s. "I only drink raw milk, except where it's not available," he said then. "We have a cabin up at Lake Arrowhead, and if you don't bring it with you, forget it. And when I have to go to New York or someplace on business — well, it's not easy, when you're invited to a fine restaurant, to order just a mixed green salad. Or, when your host has dry martinis, to ask for papaya juice." (The actor's reasons for quitting alcohol are in line with those cited by many a teetotaler: "I thought about the nights when I'd been drinking and then, in the morning, couldn't remember all the fun I'd had the night before," he explained.)
Still, life with those constraints made for some comical stories, particularly one from a writer in Taos who, after Weaver and wife were invited to visit the town, was assigned to cover the events. Despite the fact that a parade of students and other citizens in native dress didn't quite come off as intended and the planned barbecue of a buffalo named Ming Toy didn't really fit in with Weaver's diet, everything worked out in the end.
"I know you'll be happy to learn that Ming Toy was spared," the writer reported when all was said and done. "The Weavers got artichoke hearts; the Welcome McCloud banner didn't get up; the school band didn't show up for the parade, but one Indian offered to play his drum louder; the surrey with the lieutenant governor's wife in it took off, with Mrs. Weaver in hot pursuit trying to climb in; it started to rain during the presentation on the bandstand, which didn't make the two television crews and the newspaper and magazine photographers very happy; and Weaver did make a joking comment about the local paper's front-page headlines, one of which said, 'Weaver Guest in Taos,' and the other which read, 'Town Takes Dog Action.'"
Joking comments were par for the course for the actor, who'd long before learned to appreciate the upside of life after growing up poor in a five-child household ("the biggest moment for the kids was Saturday night, when father used to come home with the Sunday paper, containing the color comics," Weaver said of his childhood). After his years on Gunsmoke and a stint on Gentle Ben ("the bear got all the fan mail," he said of that job), he knew darned well the small screen had been good to him — and wasn't afraid to say so. "I haven't got much to say about these actors who put down TV acting and think they're washed up if they aren't making big movies for general release," he said. "I'm able to play a character I love before a huge audience. Why should I complain?"
As McCloud himself said many a time on his show: There you go.