The Making of Lonesome Dove

The basic rule on the set is to be faithful to Larry McMurtry’s revered novel.

June 1988By Comments

There sat the town of Lonesome Dove: a dozen grim buildings made of adobe and faded lumber, a single desolate street teeming with dust devils and undercut with dry washes, a vulture coasting above the twilit Rio Grande. The town was perched on a high cutbank above the river, affording it a panoramic view of the mesquite flats on the Mexican side. In the evening stillness I could hear cattle lowing and red-winged blackbirds rustling in the canebrakes, and the percussive sound of a bass launching itself out of the water.

A group of horsemen came riding from one end of the street toward the deep wash that led down to the river. They were seated on antique high-backed saddles and armed with horse pistols and Henry repeating rifles and Green River skinning knives. The horses looked as lanky and weathered as the men who rode them, and the spectacle of them wading into the tranquil river in the charged evening light was so exhilarating that for a moment it was possible to disregard the crowd of camera operators, grips, sound men, lighting technicians, script supervisors, and wranglers that testified to the somewhat dispiriting fact that it was all just a movie.

The riders were halfway across the river when the director yelled “Cut!” Escorted by a half-dozen watchful wranglers, the actors turned their horses around to the American side and led them back up the bank to the starting position for another take. The pounding of hooves against the soft earth produced a deep, satisfying rumble, and though the actors chatted and joked among themselves as they spurred their horses up the street the illusion of authenticity would not go away—any reader of Larry McMurtry’s vast novel could have stood in this dusty make-believe town southeast of Del Rio and checked off the cast of characters as they rode past.

There was Woodrow F. Call, the emotionally withheld former Texas Ranger whose iron will sets into motion the star-crossed trail drive that is the heart of the story. As Call, Tommy Lee Jones wore a black round-top hat and a white beard that put me in mind—not inappropriately—of Captain Ahab. Behind him rode Robert Duvall as the loquacious and magnificent Augustus McCrae. Then came Robert Urich as Jake Spoon, Danny Glover as Joshua Deets, D.B. Sweeney as Dish Boggett, Tim Scott as Pea Eye, Ricky Schroder as Newt…all of them splendidly grungy in their chaps caked with fuller’s earth (to provide the illusion of even more trail dust than they had actually accumulated), in their faded bandannas and their sweat-stained hats with artfully frayed and moth-eaten brims.

“Don’t they look great?” Bill Wittliff, Lonesome Dove‘s screenwriter and executive producers, asked as we stood there eating dust. “Don’t they look just wonderful?” The mood on the set was high at this hour, with the day’s work almost done and the light growing more gorgeous by the minute.

“Getting some good stuff, Bill!” Robert Duvall declared to Wittliff as he moseyed over after the final take. Duvall was startlingly Gus. I had seen him a few nights earlier in Colors, and the memory of him as a middle-aged Los Angeles police officer was still strong enough for me to marvel at the swiftness of the transition. It seemed that in a matter of only days he had realigned his body, changed from a bulky cop with a low center of gravity to a rangy, hollow-cheeked cowman with decidedly bowed legs. He was full of an actor’s enthusiasms tonight, praising the cinematographer, discussing the pacing of an upcoming scene, describing a passage in a book he’d read about how a group of Texas Rangers, ambushed during a river crossing, broke down and cried like babies at the death of their leader.

Duvall had a wonderful role to play. In the course of this movie Gus McCrae would rescue Lorena Wood (Diane Lane) from the appallingly villainous Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest), slam a surly bartender’s head onto the bar of a saloon, engage in two desperate Indian battles, and die a heartbreaking and unforgettable death in Miles City, Montana. These events seemed written already into Duvall’s face, into his whole aspect; you could see the claim the character of Gus had not only on the actor’s attention but in some magical way upon his being. Tonight, however, he was ebullient. Standing there bowlegged, his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, Duvall lifted himself off the ground in an irrepressible hop.

It was an article of faith on the set of Lonesome Dove that this would not be an ordinary movie. Logistics alone moved it out of that category: an eight-hour television miniseries (to air next fall) with a budge of almost $20 million, a big-name cast, and a devastating sixteen-week shooting schedule involving dozens of sets, massive location shifts, 89 speaking parts, and up to 1,400 head of stampeding cattle. Though it was destined for the small screen, the film’s scale was vast, a throwback to those bygone days when cinematic behemoths like Giant and The Alamo still grazed in the pastures of Texas myth.

But Lonesome Dove was special not just for its scale but for its source material. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel is an epic compendium of Texas history, folklore, and cherished bits of cultural identity. Though the novel borrows elegantly from a variety of sources —trail drive memoirs, the works of J. Frank Dobie, the historical friendship of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, even old movies—its own singular vision is never in question. Overlong, slow-to-start, Lonesome Dove is nonetheless an irresistible book, a ragged classic fueled by McMurtry’s passionate regard for his outsized characters and by his poignant reckoning of their limitations. In the space of three years, it has become the sacred text of Texas literature, and the filmmakers were aware that there were a lot of readers who did not want to see it screwed up.

The role of guardian angel was being played by Bill Wittliff. I had known Bill for years, long enough to appreciate the fit he and Lonesome Dove made. In movie jargon, Wittliff was a hyphenate, a writer-producer-director whose credits over the years have included The Black Stallion, Barbarosa, and Red Headed Stranger. Most of his films reflected, in one way or another, a preoccupation with the myths and lingering values of the Texas frontier. Like his friend Larry McMurtry, he grew up in rural Texas in the forties and fifties, when it was still possible to witness first-hand the fading pageantry of the open range. (Wittliff remembers standing at his stepfather’s graveside after the rest of the mourners had left, watching a relative open the coffin and reverently slip a pair of boots onto the deceased’s feet.)

“I think I was he perfect screenwriter for this,” he said, digging into the pocket of his jeans for the key to his pickup. “I really do. The people in the book are all Larry’s people, but I knew them too. I never got jammed even for a second wondering who these people were or what was at their core. That’s one of the things that Lonesome Dove is about: the fact that we all somehow believe that those are the guys we came from.

“You’ve read the screenplay,” he said to me in a concerned voice. “Do you think it’s faithful to Larry’s book?”

It struck me that I’d never heard a screenwriter express that particular concern before. But Wittliff was obviously more than Lonesome Dove‘s screenwriter or its executive producer. He was its custodian. I had stayed up for three nights with his script and found that in its 373 pages it managed to accommodate all the book’s vital particulars while discreetly pruning its shaggy story line. Even the changes had a certain scholarly flourish. When Wittliff felt he needed a line of dialogue for Call at the end of the movie, for instance, he lifted a quote from Charles Goodnight, the legendary cattleman on whom Call is partly based.

“The thing I keep preaching to everybody,” he said, “is that Lonesome Dove is the star. If we take care of Lonesome Dove, it’ll take care of us.”

Taking care of Lonesome Dove was not a simple proposition. The stampedes and dust storms, the Indian battles and rapes and hangings and river crossings and seething nests of water moccasins—all that would have been difficult enough to film without the logistics behind it: the wardrobe trucks, prop trucks, catering trucks, and motor homes that had to be moved at every change in location; the high boys, Crank-O-Vators, scrims, dinos, baby stands, and ballasts that had to be set up for each shot; the unforeseen details that had to be tended to (biscuits that were not brown enough to match the preceding shot, pipes that would not stay lit, moustaches that would not stay on); and then finally the myriad ways in which horses and cattle could be counted on to display their indifference to a film adaptation of an 843-page trail drive novel.

The director of Lonesome Dove was Simon Wincer, a 44-year-old Australian with a calm demeanor and a kindly, inquisitive expression. He had risen to prominence with a pair of films, Pharr Lapp and The Light Horsemen, that demonstrated a stylish way with narrative and—equally important—a talent for moving large groups of animals around.

“I’m used to large-scale projects,” he said as he flipped through a green binder with the day’s storyboard and shooting script. “And this one is as epic as they come. When I came to Texas I realized it was like remaking the Bible.”

Though Lonesome Dove was a television production, Wincer and Douglas Milsome, his cinematographer, were shooting it like a feature, with sophisticated lighting, moving cameras, and complex staging that required scenes to be shot from up to a half-dozen different angles. The film’s fluent intercutting—which would be so thoughtlessly accepted by a viewer’s retina—required such laborious repositioning of cameras, lights, and hundreds of accessories that watching it was like watching an army strike camp only to set it up again a few yards away.

One afternoon while the crew was preparing a shot, I went over to talk to Tommy Lee Jones, who was sitting at the base of a six-kilowatt light in the dirt yard of the Hat Creek bunkhouse, idly whacking the ground with a quirt. D.B. Sweeney, who plays the lovesick Dish Boggett, had told me to ask Jones for a recitation of the vinegarroon toast, which Sweeney had termed “a beautiful Texas haiku.”

“Hell yes I can recite the vinegarroon toast,” Jones said. He held up an imaginary shot glass, narrowed his eyes and declaimed:

“‘Here’s to the vinegarroon/that jumped on the centipede’s back. / He looked at him with a glow and a glee / and he said, “You poisonous son-of-a-bitch, / if I don’t git you, you’ll git me.”’

“You can find that in one of Mr. Dobie’s books,” Jones explained. “Cow People, I believe it is.”

At 41, Jones was at least a dozen years shy of Woodrow Call’s unspecified middle age, but in the midday light he looked pretty close. In addition to the white beard, his face was covered with three layers of latex stipple to simulate wrinkles, and above that were artful depictions of burst capillaries and liver spots.

He described the application of this makeup in authoritative detail, and during the days I spent on the set his conversation touched with equal enthusiasm upon the nature of the bicameral mind, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, the lost Jim Bowie silver mine, the proper technique of flanking a steer, and the art of acting.

“The acting’s easy,” he said. “It’s like anything else—like makin’ a pan of biscuits—it’s all in the preparation. You have to go through life and find those things that accrue to the big bouillabaisse of your brain. Or the little bouillabaisse, as the case may be.”

A Harvard-educated resident of San Saba, Jones projected an appealing air of real-world savvy. His interpretation of Call—a man so interior and taciturn that he cannot even bring himself to acknowledge his own son—seemed to be a shade or two less grim than McMurtry’s but authentic all the same. Jones said he had based the character partly on his own two grandfathers, and of course he had read Mr. Haley’s book about Mr. Goodnight.

Jones had a booming voice that made me think of Shanghai Pierce, the South Texas cattle baron who bragged that his own voice was “too big for indoor use.” The makeup and fringe of white beard did their job in making him look older, but they also lent his ornery features an unexpected mildness. On a horse, he was spectacularly convincing. There was about him a certain unstated pride—a reveling—in the fact that he was a Texan, that the character he was playing came to him not just through research but as a kind of legacy, through his own bones.

“In this next scene,” he explained as he was called over for rehearsal, “I come ridin’ the Hell Bitch in from over there to where Gus is sittin’ on the porch. There’s five Hell Bitches in this movie—one to buck, one to bite, one to kick, one to drag around, and one just to stand there.”

The Hell Bitch, in the book, is Call’s prized but unbroken gray mare. This particular scene called for the horse to come charging wildly into the frame with its rider barely in control—one of many occasions in the filming of the movie in which Jones would be called upon to display his horsemanship.

The braking horse was consistently engulfed in a cloud of dust, though a few million more particles of grit were barely noticeable in the endless sandstorm that plagued the production. The crew, whose faces were often obscured by bandannas and surgical masks, had taken to calling the movie “Lonesome Dust.” Every few takes a water truck would drive by to wet down the swirling earth in front of the house and an assistant camera operator would spray a product called Dust Buster over the moving parts of the Arriflex lens. One of the wardrobe assistants had discovered a pair of orphaned baby jackrabbits, and when the wind was down she would bring them out of the protective pocket of her camp stool and feed them drops of milk from the end of her finger.

Duvall, as Gus, sat on the porch in his weather-beaten hat and faded red undershirt. He seemed oblivious not only to the dust but to all the people and instruments that were crowded inches away from his face. Unlike Jones—whose attitude toward acting appeared as genial and uncomplicated as that of a high school quarterback who, to be a good sport, had agreed to take the lead in the senior play—Duvall was always taut with concentration. Sitting on the porch between takes, unapproachable and solitary, he muttered his lines under his breath, jerking his head this way or that with the ratchety, quizzical movements of a songbird.

Duvall seemed always to be engaged in some mysterious private rehearsal, some secret summoning act that he employed for even the most cursory scenes. One night I watched as he prepared for a shot that would be merely a cutaway view of Gus walking up to the Dry Bean saloon. Waiting for his cue, bathed in the illumination of a quartz light, Duvall paced back and forth, refining Gus’s crotchety stride. Just before “Action” was called he stopped, slapped his thighs, rubbed his hands together, planted his feet, and crouched forward, as tense as a long-distance runner at the start of a race.

Occasionally, though, when a scene satisfied him, Duvall would release his grip. “I nailed that scene!” he said after one such take, waltzing past the lights and firing an imaginary six-shooter at the ground. “Pow! Pow! Pow! I nailed it.” At such moments the grizzled and bowlegged Texas Ranger seemed to have fled from Duvall’s body like an exorcised spirit, giving it back momentarily to its primary occupant, whoever exactly that was.

The action of Lonesome Dove takes place from Texas to Montana, a range of locations that would be prohibitively expensive for any picture, much less one that involves so much livestock and period baggage. Though New Mexico would stand in for many of the more northern locations, one of the things Wittliff insisted upon was that the Texas parts be shot in Texas.

The ranch outside Del Rio on which the production company had set up shot contained 56,000 acres. Within its fence lines were landscapes that could credibly represent anything from desert to brushland to Hill Country glade. Today an impounded stretch of Pinto Creek just upstream from the ranch headquarters was being used as the Canadian River.

The scene to be filmed was described in the screenplay as follows:

The Hat Creek cowboys (naked or wearing only long johns, though all are wearing their hats) whoop and yell as they swim the herd across the Canadian River.

It was innocuous-sounding words like those—”swim the herd across the Canadian River”—that presented Lonesome Dove with its endless trials in livestock deployment. Down by the creek the Shotmaker—a half-million-dollar four-wheel-drive vehicle with a soaring camera crane—was already in position, and workers were shuttling back and forth across the creek in a makeshift ferry in order to set up another camera on the opposite bank.

At the base camp, a quarter mile up the road, some of the actors who were playing the Hat Creek drovers—including Larry McMurtry’s son James—stood around in their chaps outside the wardrobe truck, being dusted down with fuller’s earth.

In a nearby field Tommy Lee Jones was running the Hell Bitch in figure eights to get her (or him—this particular Hell Bitch was a gelding) into a calm frame of mind.

“Thar’s them bovines now,” he said, reining up and watching as three hundred head of cattle headed in his direction. The animals’ hooves, trotting over the dried brush covering the field, produced a whispery rattling sound that made it seem that the cattle were not bearing down upon the earth with their full weight.

In a perfect world, these would have been Longhorns, But as Jimmy Medearis, the head wrangler, explained to me, Longhorn cattle—particularly cows with calves—are not “maneuverable.” For the sake of historical accuracy, Mexican corrientes were the next best thing. They were framey, wild-looking beasts with substantial horns, and there were a few in the herd that were as shaggy and humpbacked as buffalo.

The wranglers herded the cattle down to the creek and then escorted them—via a much shallower crossing just upstream—to the top of the high bluff on the far side. Jones, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroder, and the rest of the actors playing the Hat Creek Outfit soon followed.

Jimmy Medearis remained on the near bank, a bag of range cubes hanging across his saddlehorn. He planned to strew the feed into the path of the oncoming cattle to slow them down after the excitement of the crossing. Nearby, an EMT team moved into position.

“This is going to be a hand-on-switch situation,” Robert Rooy, the first assistant director, announced. “All three cameras need to be ready. Everybody please clear. Speak up now if you’re not ready or forever hold your peace. Stay off the radios, please. No idle chitchat.”

There was no apparent motion for a few seconds after Wincer called “Action,” but soon a cloud of dust was visible behind the bluff on the other side of the creek.

“Cattle at sixty yards,” Rooy said, holding a walkie-talkie to his ear. “Cattle at forty yards. Cattle at twenty yards.”

Jones appeared over the bluff first. He was wearing his long underwear and riding the Hell Bitch down the steep embankment with the herd of cattle behind him. The other actors—some of them total naked except for their hats, others in their long johns—followed, swinging ropes and heyahhing the cattle along to the water.

The herd plunged without complaint into the water and held their stricken faces high while they groped for the bottom with their hooves. Beside them the cowboys struggled to hold on while their horses stroked awkwardly across the narrow creek. In an instant the pretty green water had changed into a roiling mass of suspended mud and dislodged vegetation.

The crew was applauding as the drovers, sopping wet and buzzing with adrenaline, emerged from the creek.

“That look like a cattle crossin’?” Jones asked Wittliff.

“Damn right it did.”

Duvall had not been involved in the river crossing, because in the movie he is waiting for the cowboys on the far bank, having just come back from the various thundering adventures involved in his rescue of Lorena from Blue Duck. In the scene remaining to be shot, he would talk to Call and the others while the cattle crossed the river in the background.

Duvall, Jones, Tim Scott, Ricky Schroder, and D.B. Sweeney retired to their director’s chairs in the scattered shade of a huisache and rehearsed the scene in relative peace while the wranglers began recycling the cattle back to the other side of the creek.

“I was sorry to hear about Bill Spettle,” Duval said in a recitative, as yet uncommitted voice.

“Same bolt a lightin’ that kilt him kilt thirteen head a cattle,” Jones responded, hanging his wet socks up on a limb to dry. “Burned ‘em black.”

They went through it several more times, waiting for the complicated shot to be set up. When it was ready, Jones and the rest of the drovers who would be emerging from the river rode their horses into the water to get wet again. Duvall sat waiting for them on his horse, enduring numberless pesty adjustments: a makeup man standing on a ladder and combing the hair beneath the actor’s hat brim, a camera assistant taking a light reading off his face, a woman from the wardrobe department snapping a Polaroid while another daubed sweat on his back, a boom operator dangling a fur-covered microphone above his head, and a wrangler crouching beneath his horse, holding its tail. Through it all Duvall was as mute and still as an equestrian statue.

All this artifice fell away when the cameras started to roll and Jones and the others rode up from the creek as if they had just crossed with the cattle. The cattle themselves were crossing again for real, and so the background was full of marvelous chaos as Jones and Duvall delivered their lines. The takes were all good, but on the third take something extraordinary happened, something you could not explain. It had to do simply with the way Duvall said the line “I’m sorry we lost Bill Spettle”—the way his voice now seemed to have landed in some new register of compassion and tragic authority.

At that moment I was convinced. Gus and Call seemed utterly real to me, and I was struck with a vague sense of premonition that at first I could not account for. Then I remembered something I had seen the day before, when I had been poking around the set of Lonesome Dove. I was in Pumphrey’s General Store, admiring the shelves that were stocked with realistic-looking bottles of chill tonic and Chief Two Moons Bitter Oil Laxative, when I wandered into a side room filled with props. Leaning against the wall was a human form, wrapped in burlap and lashed to a board. When I saw that the form had only one booted leg, I realized what it was. It was Gus, who dies of gangrene in Montana and is hauled back by Call to be buried in Texas.

That burlap-wrapped mannequin was an unaccountably poignant sight, as if Gus were real and the body was really Gus. You get confused on a movie set, because for all the chaos and tedium the urge to believe that it is all not just a movie is as strong as it is in the theater. Watching Duvall and Jones speak to each other as Gus and Call now above the noise of the cattle and the whistles and grunts of the drovers, I found myself particularly susceptible. I was sad that Gus would die, sad that Call would end up haunted and bereft, but most of all I was sad because I could not help knowing that the myth they represented, for all its immediacy and ageless power, was still a myth.

When the scene between Gus and Call was finished and the cattle had crossed the river for the seventh and last time, somebody noticed a solitary cow still standing on the other side of the creek.

“I’ll get him!” yelled one of the actors, a young bit player still clad only in his cowboy hat and chaps. Swinging his rope, he kicked his horse toward the water.

“Stop!” Jimmy Medearis, the head wrangler, shouted after him. “Let us get him! You guys are not cowboys!”

The actor obeyed, but he cast a resentful eye at Medearis. What was the harm in pretending?

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it: how to perform a perfect cameo in three seconds.

In the television version of Lonesome Dove, I play Cornelius J. Trudell, a St. Louis pastry chef who had fled to Fort Smith, Arkansas, amid allegations that he murdered an elderly society dowager—along with her entire bridge club—by serving them a poisoned charlotte russe. A morbid genius, Trudell works by day as an assistant to the Fort Smith undertaker but labors far into the night perfecting his deadly recipes, and it is he alone who knows that his employer’s sudden surge of business has a direct connection with the local doughnut shop.

Brilliant, sardonic, mysteriously attractive to women, Trudell is one of the most complex characters ever conceived for the screen. Simon Wincer, the director, allowed me unusual latitude in bringing the character to life. Wincer clearly believed so strongly in the necessity for an actor to prepare in solitude, in the sanctum of his own soul, that he paid me the ultimate professional tribute of not consulting me at all.

The role of Trudell was particularly challenging because of the meager screen time allotted to the character—perhaps two or three seconds—and the limitations imposed by the lack of any dialogue whatsoever. That he was not mentioned either in the screenplay or in the novel added considerably to my creative burden. It was the sort of performance that an ordinary actor might not dare essay. But I was not an ordinary actor—I was an extra. Actually, the term I prefer is “background artist.”

“Your background action is going to make this look like a real town,” Matt Bearson, an assistant director, told the Lonesome Dove extras. “It’s very important that it looks like you live in your own world. One of the best ways to do this is to create character for yourself.

I had been an extra once before. I played Salmon LaChance, the dying postmaster from Chug Hole, Nebraska, who watches Willie Nelson ride his horse down the street in Red Headed Stranger. But the role of Trudell was far meatier, and I was so eager to play the part I agreed to work for scale – $40 a day, plus gas money and lunch (to include a choice of dessert).

I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I reported to the wardrobe trailer and, after a great deal of measurement and thoughtful scrutiny, was issued a black suit, a pair of clodhoppers, and a derby. Here I was, in Lonesome Dove, the quintessential cowboy epic, and I had to wear a derby! Not only that, but my scene did not even take place in Texas but in Arkansas. I could have sulked and held up production, the way Marlon Brando did on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty, but I knew if I behaved like a prima donna I risked losing the respect of the crew. So I listened quietly as Matt explained the scene. This was, he said, the part of the movie where a formidable woman named Peach (played by Helena Humann) storms across a busy Fort Smith street to confront Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) and demand that he take off in pursuit of “that murderer Jake Spoon.”

As the undertaker’s assistant, I was stationed on the boardwalk in front of the funeral parlor. During this scene, the undertaker would be seated on a bench, comforting a widow, while I, Cornelius J. Trudell, awaited the hearse that would deliver her husband’s coffin.

All morning long—upon hearing the command “background”—the extras swarmed into motion. Wagons rumbled, chickens squawked, horses whinnied, citizens greeted one another in pantomime, the undertaker patted the widow’s hand. Each take lasted perhaps a minute at the most, and then it was time to “recycle” and start the whole promenade again.

I held back a little at first, searching for the essential rhythm, the emotional fundament of the scene. Knowing what he knows, I asked myself, how would Trudell behave? As a shrewdly observant psychopath, he could not fail to notice the heated conversation a few paces away between Peach and July Johnson, but his full attention would certainly be elsewhere. I decided to have him kick an imaginary dirt clod off the boardwalk with his foot, a bit of business that seemed to hint at both his restlessness and his evil calculations.

But Wincer kept ordering more takes. He clearly wasn’t satisfied with my performance. We both knew something was missing. Then, just as the cameras started to roll for the dozenth time, it came to me. The widow! Of course! Trudell and the widow are in love! And the fact that her husband is lying in the hearse—after complaining to his wife at dinner that her corn dodgers had a peculiar aftertaste—is no accident whatsoever!

Suddenly, I had the key to the whole scene. The performance flowed out of me. Kicking the dirt clod, I felt remarkably natural, as if I weren’t acting at all. When Wincer yelled “Cut!” I saw him glance vaguely in my direction. It seemed to me that his eyes were filled with respect. “That’s a print,” he said.

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