Here in Pittsburgh, we’re finally coming out of one of the longest, coldest winters in history. One of the ways I survived the dark, frigid nights was watching Gunsmoke reruns. And seeing Dennis Weaver, who played Marshall Matt Dillon’s sidekick Chester Goode, reminded me that he was was a Hollywood rarity—a true environmentalist. While many like Barbra Streisand give lip service to conservation, Weaver lived his life devoted to preservation of our diminishing natural resources.
Streisand has an eight bedroom, 11 bathroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion to which she recently added a full shopping mall. Weaver, on the other hand, built his famous Colorado electricity-free, self-contained home — which he named "Earthship" — with 3-foot-thick walls made of compacted dirt, 2,500 recycled tires and thousands of cans. Earthship captured winter sunlight for extra heat, with some floors providing supplemental radiant heating; the house's water is also solar-heated. (See Harper's Bazaar photo shoot here.)
While constructing Earthship in 1989, Weaver stressed the ecological importance of using old tires. Noting that used tires have filled dumps throughout the nation and that they often catch on fire and release toxic gases, Weaver said that by building his home from them, he converted a problem into a resource and made his house "in harmony with natural things." The Earthship concept remains popular today. Pre-designed drawings and partially prefabricated construction packages are readily available on the Internet.
In 1993, Weaver and his wife Jerry founded the nonprofit Institute of Ecolonomics, a word Dennis created to illustrate the need for synergy between "a healthy ecology and a vibrant economy to create a sustainable future."
In 2003, the Institute launched the "Drive to Survive" campaign, wherein Dennis led a fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles on a road trip to Washington, D.C. The tour, intended to increase awareness about the need to reduce America's oil dependency, made stops all along the country, including pit stops in Los Angeles, Fresno, Bakersfield and Sacramento.
In 2006, Weaver died from cancer. The 60-acre Dennis Weaver Memorial Park in Ridgeway, Colo. remains a permanent wildlife preserve and tribute to Weaver's lifelong career as a humanitarian and environmentalist. At Weaver's funeral, Arness said that two immediately became "fast friends" and stayed that way for 50 years. Arness described Weaver's passing as "a big loss" to him.
Arness died in 2011, but not before leaving behind a generous charitable legacy. In 1968, he donated his 1,600-acre ranch in North Los Angeles County to the Brandes Institute, and his specially built 60-foot catamaran to the Sea Scouts.
A YouTube video of Weaver commenting on Earthship's construction in progress, which he called "the most exciting days of his life," is here.