When Lonesome Dove was published, in 1985, western movies were in one of their periodic eclipses. A decade or so of preachy revisionist movies like Doc and Soldier Blue had drained away their mythic vitality, and whatever spark of interest was left had been snuffed out by the debacle of Heaven’s Gate. I remember being surprised when Kurt Luedtke, who was about to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Out of Africa, told me that the project he most wanted to do next was an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 843-page novel. I had loved the book but couldn’t quite believe in the possibility of a big studio western in a period dominated by edgy urban dramas and gross-out college comedies. Besides, even a novice screenwriter like me understood that there was way too much story in Lonesome Dove to render into a feature movie of even blockbuster length.
When, in the end, my friend Bill Wittliff was hired to produce and adapt the book as a miniseries, I still had my doubts. A television screen seemed like a perversely small frame for a story of such unparalleled openness. And if I had known then what I know now—after almost twenty years of writing movies and miniseries for television—I would have despaired. The budget restrictions of television, the squeamishness of network executives and sponsors about depicting violence or unwholesome situations, their desperate fear that viewers will change the channel at every commercial break unless some hokey cliff-hanger scene precedes it, the reluctance of major movie stars to be caught slumming on the small screen, the unceasing reliance on topical “triumph of the human spirit” stories—all these factors argued against the adaptation of a mammoth trail-drive novel.
There were some iconoclasts, like Robert Halmi Sr. and Suzanne De Passe, behind the production, but I strongly suspect that if the assignment to adapt Lonesome Dove had gone to any other writer, someone with less clout or less tenacity—someone, for instance, like me—the result would have been a marginally enjoyable but mostly forgettable movie. I would surely have argued for shrinking the story down, for taking out the whole subplot about July Johnson searching for his runaway wife, for excising any number of subsidiary characters who had no clear strategic purpose when it came to strengthening and clarifying the central story line. I would have patted myself on the back for having cast a cold eye on a beloved book and having wrestled an unruly narrative to the ground.
I did not understand how wrong I would have been until I went down to Del Rio to visit the production and Bill handed me a copy of his final script. It was long, immensely long for a screenplay: almost four hundred pages. I stayed up most of the night reading it in my motel room and was amazed to see that everything was in it. None of the subplots or significant characters or winding narrative trails of the book had been cut out. It was a bracing thing to read, because clearly the assumption behind it was that Lonesome Dove was a great book, that CBS and Motown Productions and RHI Entertainment and all the other financing entities involved should feel privileged to adapt it, and that it had to be translated with all its ragged grandeur and idiosyncrasies intact or it would not be worth doing.
When I saw the set the next day, I was even more encouraged. Cary White, the production designer, had built the town of Lonesome Dove on a high bank above the Rio Grande, and the place looked as if it had been sitting there, moldering in the Texas weather, for many hard decades. I’ve learned over the years that I’m easily beguiled by movie sets, tricked by the magic and rigor of the set and costume design and the earnest industry going on all around me into thinking that whatever picture is being filmed is going to be authentic and unforgettable—a judgment that is rarely ratified on the screen. In the case of Lonesome Dove, however, my first impression ended up ringing triumphantly true.
Robert Duvall had originally been approached to play Woodrow Call, a role that his portrayals of unrevealing men in movies like The Great Santini and Tender Mercies argued for. But he told Bill he wanted to play “the other guy,” and now here he was, walking down the streets of Lonesome Dove, not just credible as Gus McCrae but instantly definitive, forever erasing from my mind the thought of what the character would have been like if James Stewart or Paul Newman or any of the other actors who had been mentioned at one time or another had ended up playing him. Filming had barely begun, and Duvall already seemed to have the verdict of history behind him, an aura that declared that the casting of Gus could not have worked out any other way.
Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call was more of an adjustment. I wasn’t sure I liked his hat or his Kenny Rogers—esque beard, and when he delivered his lines, there seemed to me more bounce in his voice than one would have heard emanating from the taciturn Woodrow Call. The shrewdness and confidence behind his performance took a while to appreciate. Gus is the unforgettable, irresistible presence at the heart of Lonesome Dove, but the story, in its deepest current, belongs to Call. It’s Call who is summoned to face the hardest truths about himself, to lose the friend who has challenged and defined him all his life, and to be left alive to confront a hollow future. Call is a puzzled and morose witness to his own fate, but Jones seemed to have recognized that this would have been a deadly note to sustain for more than six hours. Perhaps for that reason there’s a fascinating variability in the pitch of his performance, a humor and spryness that make Call’s emotional imprisonment all the sadder.