The Lonesome Dove Trail and Reunion stampeded into Fort Worth last week to pay homage to Lonesome Dove, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning, four-part, 384-minute storied mini-series based on the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name. The longform film primarily focuses on the lives of Captains Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, two retired Texas Rangers sprung from the template of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Call and Gus lead the Hat Creek Outfit on an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana, an adventure filled with a turbulent, mixed bag from Mother Nature, a villainous American Indian named Blue Duck, and a rising death toll. Watching Lonesome Dove, considered the ultimate western, is a rite of passage for anyone who claims to be Texan.
Robert Duvall, who played the lovable and comedic Gus to Tommy Lee Jones’s stoic and brutal Call, put a fine point on this fact during the opening night’s panel discussion when he said, “I was having dinner with Texas Ranger Hank Whitman and this woman came up to me. She said her family watches Lonesome Dove once a year. She wouldn’t let her daughter’s fiancé marry into the family until he watched it.”
Added Danny Glover, who played Deets, a scout on the trail ride: “If I come within 1,000 miles of Texas, someone says something to me about Lonesome Dove. It’s like the National Anthem.”
The multi-day festivities began Monday and Tuesday with a free outdoor screening of Lonesome Dove in Sundance Square and culminated Thursday evening with a roughly 1,000-person, $1,000-a-plate gala at River Ranch in the Stockyards. In between it featured free, director’s chair talks with the cast and crew at TCU and the Maddox-Muse Center in downtown, drawing hundreds to each outing. There’s also complementary, ongoing exhibits around Fort Worth, including “Lonesome Dove: The Art of the Story” at the Sid Richardson Museum, in which paintings and sculptures by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell are paralleled with elements of Lonesome Dove, and “Lonesome Dove: Highlights of the Wittliff Collections” at the Old Jail Art Center, in Albany, featuring artifacts from the production archive.
The stars were, as the song goes, big and bright. Joining Duvall and Glover were Diane Lane, the object of Gus’s affection; Chris Cooper, a sheriff avenging his brother’s death; several Hat Creek members including Ricky Schroder; and Margo Martindale, a Jacksonville native who played a pregnant prostitute named “Buffalo Heifer.” (San Saba native Tommy Lee Jones and Anjelica Huston, an old flame of Gus’s, were on the bill but cancelled at the last minute.
What seemed like the entire production staff was also in attendance, from props to wardrobe specialists—a testament to the pride people have in being part of this classic work. There was also co-executive producer Suzanne de Passe, director Simon Wincer, producer Dyson Lovell, and Bill Wittliff, the screenwriter, other co-executive producer, and primary creative force behind the mini-series.
That made only one person who had been invited—over and over—who was totally absent: McMurtry, whose book was published in 1985 and won the Pulitzer the next year.
At the end of a panel titled “The Filmmakers”—which emphasized the sixteen-week, six-days-a-week, eleven-pages-a-day, $23-million shoot that moved from Austin to Del Rio to Santa Fe to Angel Fire—I raised my hand and asked, “What did Larry McMurtry think of the mini-series? And why isn’t he here?”
“He still says he’s never seen it,” said Wittliff, who has maintained a friendship with McMurtry in the years since he and his wife, Sally, published McMurtry’s fourth book, a 1968 collection of essays on Texas titled In A Narrow Grave, on their Encino Press.
If McMurtry seems estranged from the mini-series, it would be understandable. As McMurtry and Wittliff have both said, bad business dealings caused them and others to lose “points” and forfeit significant future earnings on the mini-series, which still routinely airs to this day. Also, McMurtry intended Lonesome Dove to demythologize the cowboy and the American West, and Wittliff’s Lonesome Dove romanticized that way of life—at least that’s how it came to be perceived by viewers.
But a different theme of the story was discussed during the panel discussion “The Women of Lonesome Dove”: the portrayal of female characters. “Women and westerns—not exactly synonymous,” quipped moderator Barbara Morgan of the Austin Film Festival, who joined de Passe, Lane, and Martindale.
Though scantly represented, Lonesome Dove makes its women’s presences known. Consider the resourceful and determined Elmira Johnson, played by Glenne Headley, who, in a side story to the trail ride, buddies up with buffalo hunters and later abandons her newly born baby. There is also Lorena Wood, played by Lane, a dear woman who perseveres despite the atrocities certain men have committed toward her, like the ex-lover who forced her into prostitution and the gang of men who assaulted her.
At the same panel, de Passe told the story of how she optioned McMurtry’s novel. She was vacationing at a swanky spa in Tucson, Arizona, where she bumped into the feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who was vacationing with media tycoon Mort Zuckerman. Steinem invited de Passe out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant with McMurtry, who, at the time, was living in Tucson with Leslie Marmon Silko, the Native American writer.
De Passe and McMurtry hit it off and later De Passe, who worked for Berry Gordy at Motown, had lunch with McMurtry in Los Angeles. She asked him if he had anything kicking around that he might like to see developed. “I’ve got a book coming out but you wouldn’t like it because it’s a western,” she said he said. It turned out she was a horsewoman and took the bait.
She said the next day she received a delivery of a flatbed dolly carrying numerous boxes filled with the 1,800-or-so double-spaced pages of the typewritten manuscript. As she read it, she became hooked. She brokered a deal through McMurtry’s agent, Irving Lazar, a.k.a. “Swifty,” who gave her an eighteen-month option for $50,000. She thought she had scored a sweet deal—that is until she found out that every studio and network had passed on the book. One of her friends told her, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Swifty just took you. That’s why he’s called Swifty.”
McMurtry stuck with the project for a bit, de Passe said, helping with an outline and with trying to select a director, but soon he was done with it entirely. It was all up to de Passe, who was getting nowhere until she received the call that McMurtry’s book won the Pulitzer Prize. “The world changed,” she said. “I went from goat to goddess.”
De Passe momentarily broke into tears when she talked about how she was the only female in the hierarchy of the production staff—a black woman from Harlem, she pointed out—and how it was incredibly hard, but a necessity, to turn the reins over to the men. After all, this was her movie from the get-go, but at the same time it was a movie about cowboys and the macho swagger that comes with that. Plus, it was a physically demanding movie to pull off.
“In letting go, I became more a part of it than I thought I would have,” she said. “To produce something of this size took a village—a village of men.”
Just like Call and Gus finally reached the end of the trail in Montana, the well-heeled (as in heels the likes of M.L. Leddy custom-made boots) finally loped into River Ranch for the main event, a private dinner that commenced with the striking of a triangle. There was also both a silent and live auction. The goal was to raise $1 million to in part foster a music collection at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, a repository founded by Bill and Sally Wittliff in 1986 to preserve Southwestern literature, photography, and art.
The Lonesome Dove Trail and Reunion was supposed to happen a couple of years ago to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the mini-series. But according to Wittliff, the celebration was delayed, largely because of fears that potential donors had been affected by the hit to the oil business. The wait paid off. The event was a sell-out, with eighty-some-odd tables of ten (at least one table sold for $100,000) packed with attendees who took the “cowboy chic” dress code as seriously as Call’s zero-tolerance for rude behavior in a man.
Numerous VIP joined the talent. (The latter were probably a little sluggish after closing out the Worthington Hotel bar the night before while watching Lonesome Dove, which they demanded the bartender put on.) Among the big wigs were Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who was wearing a duster jacket, and Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who spent a good amount of time in private conversation with Duvall, whom he befriended during outlaw musician Billy Joe Shaver’s trial for shooting a man in the face outside of a bar a couple of years back.
Barry Tubb, the actor who played a cowboy with a fear of drowning, was the emcee. His banter was full of factoids, like how McMurtry was sitting in a café a little north of the Stockyards when he saw a bus for the Lonesome Dove Baptist Church, in nearby Southlake, and had a eureka moment about the title of his book-in-progress. Tubb also lovingly referred to Wittliff as “the gatekeeper of the West.”
One of the most poignant, and deserving, moments came when Wittliff delivered a heartfelt toast to McMurtry in absentia. “We are all here because Larry McMurtry wrote a great book.” And then he listed character after character, thanking McMurtry for each one. As if on cue, two of McMurtry’s kin soon appeared onstage: his son, James McMurtry, and grandson, Curtis McMurtry, two Austin singer-songwriters who extend the family tree of storytellers to three generations. James had an acoustic guitar, Curtis had a banjo, and their friend, Diana Burgess, had a cello.
“I was asked to sing a song that they would have sung around the campfire and a song that my dad would have liked,” James said. “My dad lifted the title for his second novel from this one.” He then launched into “Goodbye, Old Paint (I’m Leaving Cheyenne),” a tune popularized by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
After the musical tribute, Glover, Lane, and Schroder read excerpts from Lonesome Dove. Duvall then spoke, delivering his story of how he became Gus, a role whose hand mannerisms he picked up from spending time with and studying former NFL football player and TCU alum Sammy Baugh. “My ex-wife—to be—is a very literary person,” Duvall said. “She said, Bobby, I’ve read a novel and it’s better than Dostoyevsky. They will come to you and offer you the part of Call, but you have to take Augustus McCrae.” James Garner, who was originally slated to play Gus alongside Duvall’s Call, pulled out and Duvall completed the switcheroo. “I’ll always thank my ex,” he said. Duvall added that he was fortunate to be in two of the greatest epics of all time—Lonesome Dove and The Godfather, and that he’s best known for his role in the former.
By then word had spread through the giant hall that Jerry Jeff Walker would close out the night as a surprise musical guest. People were appropriately frothed and ready for the electricity of the live auction that would precede his performance. Benny Boyd and his father, also Benny Boyd—partners in auto, ranch, and real estate businesses throughout Texas—came out the big winners. Not only did they score the two handkerchiefs worn by Call and Gus, for $31,000, but they also took home a script of Lonesome Dove that was signed on the cover by seventy-six cast members, for a cool $70,000.
“We purchased the memorabilia in hopes to keep it in our family,” Boyd wrote in an email from Las Vegas, where he was attending the Academy of Country Music Awards. “We hope for our family to remember Lonesome Dove for not only being one of the greatest western movies of all time, but also understanding the purity, morals, and values of our western heritage.”