For the past six seasons Dennis Weaver has appeared one Sunday night a month as the title character in NBC’s McCloud, playing a folksy New Mexican cop transplanted to New York’s sin, sophistication and street crime. During those same years the real-life Dennis Weaver has spent the first Sunday of each month at the Self-Realization Fellowship’s Temple of the Lake Shrine in Los Angeles. There, amid ten acres of garden paths, waterfalls, cottages, lotus-towers and a swan-graced lake, the 50-year-old TV veteran convincingly performs the role of lay preacher, and it fits him as comfortably as McCloud’s soft-brimmed western hat.
A native of Joplin, Mo. and grandson of a minister, Weaver has been an SRF disciple for almost 17 years. Founded in Los Angeles 55 years ago by an Indian, Paramhansa Yogananda, the faith attempts to find truth and unity in all religions. It draws from both the New Testament and the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. Its estimated 500,000 worldwide adherents are asked to practice yoga, meditate daily and follow an ascetic regimen which excludes meat, alcohol and tobacco.
It is Weaver’s sincerity, no longer his star quality, that draws overflow crowds to his sermons. (He also attends services other Sundays but does not preach). Dressed in casual street clothes (“What I might wear to the Emmys”), the two-time Emmy winner launches into an apparently off-the-cuff talk that, in fact, he has carefully prepared the day before. Speaking on topics like “Habits: Your Master or Your Slave?” Weaver melds homilies and anecdotes, often from his own show-business career. “I was on Gunsmoke playing a man with a stiff leg for nine years,” he drawls. “People asked me how I did that. It was just habit, muscle memory”—explaining how habits can be put to use. He insists that exhortations—his, or anyone else’s—are secondary to “meditation, the cornerstone of the service.” He adds, “When the mind, the senses and the intellect are stilled, a new consciousness bubbles within us.”
Weaver meditates daily, both on the McCloud set and in a specially-designed chamber (complete with a replica of the Lake Shrine’s altar) at his home in rural Calabasas, a 40-minute drive in Weaver’s orange BMW (license plates: GURU JI) from the McCloud set. He is joined by his wife Gerry—whom he met while both were students at Joplin Junior College and married in 1945—and occasionally by their three sons, Rick, 26, and Robbie, 22, both actors, and Rusty, 16.
Weaver, a former college decathlon star, is still lean and muscular, due in part to his SRF-inspired brown bag lunch (vegetable soup, carrot-and-celery juice, an avocado-tomato sandwich). In addition to his TV show, Weaver is also president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post he has held for two years. SRF, says Weaver, encourages the “balance of responsibility to the world with responsibility to God—with God,” he adds, “having the edge.”
Weaver’s convictions and the life he leads inevitably earn some derision in a town that is militantly worldly. But Terry Carter, who plays McCloud’s sidekick, Sgt. Joe Broadhurst, defends Weaver. “He brings a lot of love and good vibes to the set,” says Carter, “but he doesn’t proselytize or spew doctrine. He’s just warm, humanistic, and simply humble.” The snickering at his life-style does not faze Dennis Weaver. “The more you look for success in worldly things, like money and status, the less likely you are to find it,” he philosophizes. “If you depend on the world for fulfillment, you will be disappointed, and eventually you will be destroyed.”