“It’s Doc Cochran’s office—I’m sure of it! And there’s the Bella Union!” Over a decade after HBO’s Deadwood had left the air, fans attending the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival at Melody Ranch were making their pilgrimage from holy site to holy site. They loved that show.
The gritty, greatly fact-based and greatly fictionalized story of the founding of Deadwood, South Dakota, was and is as controversial among Western fans as High Noon. But beyond question, Deadwood is the most popular, important and influential Western thus far in the 21st century. It also introduced the word c*cks*cker to the Western lexicon. And then there was the ending that was only intended as a cliffhanger: George Hearst, father of future publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, and played with stylishly deadly charm by Gerald McRaney, is the victor. With the show’s abrupt cancellation after three successful seasons, fans were devastated. As Robin Weigert, whose performance as Calamity Jane has redefined that character, puts it, “I thought, it’s the anti-Western: the bad guy rides off into the sunset!”
Deadwood is the brainchild of David Milch, who both studied and taught literature at Yale before going to Hollywood. A man of great talent and passions, he’s won four Emmys for writing, three for NYPD Blue and one for Hill Street Blues; he’s had two nominations for Deadwood. He’s also struggled with heroin, and gambled away over $100 million. For 13 years, while working on many short-lived HBO projects, Milch and other members of the Deadwood team have made countless attempts to finish the story of the building of the town, and finally they’ve succeeded: a new Deadwood movie will debut on HBO on May 31, 2019, featuring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Gerald McRaney—virtually the entire surviving cast and crew.
From the start, Deadwood was a show that everybody wanted to be a part of. “I was always fascinated with Westerns, because of all of that untamed lawlessness and danger and larger-than-life characters,” recalls the production designer, Maria Caso, whose work on the series earned her an Emmy. She’d been highly respected in her field for two decades when the original series was announced. “HBO and Paramount already had production designers lined up, but my young son said, ‘Mom, you have to try to get the show because that’s your dream, to work on a Western.’ I spent three days researching the real Deadwood. I went and met with David Milch and [producer] Gregg Feinberg. I told them I would kill to work on a Western. I promised I would sleep in my office and make the show look amazing if they hired me. They both said, ‘Great, you are hired.’”
From there, the research began in earnest. “We were trying to re-create the town the way it really was. I flew to Deadwood and the museum curator had a photograph [of the town] that nobody had ever seen before. I brought it back and said, ‘This is what we want the street to be,’ so we copied everything on the street.” Gene Autry’s old Melody Ranch studio went through a major transformation. “We put a gold mine in the middle of the street, we had the street undulating, we brought in 80 truckloads of dirt. The roads back then were steep, muddy pathways. We watered the streets down every day. There were so many buildings we had to remove 13 when we first got there.”
Brad Dourif was a screen legend long before he was cast as Doc Cochran in Deadwood. Oscar-nominated for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he also has a cult following for playing the voice of Chucky, the homicidal doll in the Child’s Play films. He has a strong presence in Westerns, from Heaven’s Gate to Grim Prairie Tales. Right before Deadwood, he’d even starred in an Australia-lensed prequel series to Bonanza, titled Ponderosa. “David said, ‘I just want to see what you’re going to do. I have a real instinct about it.’ And I did my little audition; then next was my audition in front of HBO. Before we went in, David said, ‘I’m looking around. Do you notice you don’t see any other actors who look anything like you do? That should tell you where you’re at.’ So, whatever I did, he really liked it.”
The respect is clearly mutual. “You know, I worked with David Lynch. I’ve worked with John Huston. I’ve worked with Milos Foreman. I’ve worked with tons of really extraordinary directors. But ]Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright] Lanford Wilson and David Milch were the smartest people I ever worked with. And the most instinctive—their instincts were impeccable. David would come in, polish almost every single thing that we shot. I was really impressed with him.”
On the other hand, Brandeis graduate Robin Weigert had no long string of credits when she first read for the Calamity Jane role in New York. “I had not been on TV beyond an episode of Law and Order, where I’d been a traumatized victim of a shooting. In pictures the real Calamity Jane looks scary, tough. So I did my toughest rendition of the character, and the feedback came, ‘Loved the vulnerability. But could you please make yourself a little more…’ and I got a list of all the things I had tried so hard to be.” For the callback she rented a Western costume, “to cover up the parts of me that looked softer, delicate. I got a kerchief to make my neck look more sturdy, and a hat to hide my hair.”
She wore it again when they flew her out to L.A.—her first time in the West— for one last audition, where she turned on the roomful of studio executives. “I was cussing them out: I treated them like they were too cowardly to go look for the girl [lost] on the Spearfish Road. I used everybody in the room to be the folks in the bar. My nerves were vanquished by moxie and absurdity.”
Weigert knew her version of Jane would be “a substantial distance from Doris Day’s portrayal. David Milch had warned me off—not reading, but trusting—the various books too much, because Jane herself was an embellisher.” She got help from an actress not associated with the show. “Jane Alexander, who’s such a brilliant actress, played her in a movie some time ago. I wanted to pick her brain a bit. She was actually able to interview a centenarian who had met Jane, who as a tiny boy mended fences for Calamity Jane. She was such a generous help.”
Another help to Robin was the man who played the object of Jane’s unrequited love, Wild Bill Hickok. She was not happy, nor was HBO, when just a few episodes in, he drew aces and eights. “I was heartbroken. Keith Carradine had been such a bedrock element. I didn’t know how I could be Jane without him. But it was great stuff to use, because I don’t think Jane knew how to be Jane without Hickok for a good while. And Carradine used to take care of me, because I didn’t know how to hit a mark, I had so little experience before a camera. He’d kinda put a hand on the base of my spine to gently guide me to open to camera.”
William Sanderson, who plays hotel proprietor E.B. Farnum, gained recognition as the genetic engineer in 1992’s Blade Runner, and popularity in eight seasons of Newhart as Larry, with two brothers named Daryl. He’s immensely proud to have been in Lonesome Dove as Lippy, the saloon pianist who the town’s only whore refuses to sleep with at any price. “But my favorite role, even though Newhart was the longest running, was for Deadwood. For David Milch.” There’s been a consistency to his nearly 130 film and TV characters. “The word I keep hearing, the nice word, is quirky. You can say lowlifes or misfits, or steal from Strother Martin and say prairie scum.” He got the role of Farnum with help from a great Western director. “I did The Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern—I liked him immensely. Walter Hill directed it. So when Deadwood came around, I got to meet with Walter [who would win an Emmy for directing the pilot], and read some material, and the genius-type David Milch was in the room, and seemed to like me.”
Sanderson was surprised to learn that he was playing a real man. “Well, I was shocked. He was the first real mayor and he might’ve been the justice of the peace. He dispensed justice in a thoroughfare and was a successful businessman.” As the series progressed, “David kept stealing from my own gargoyles of insecurity. He started to draw on my self-doubts, and make Farnum into a cockroach or something. But they’re hard to kill, cockroaches.”
When season three of Deadwood ended, everyone involved happily prepared for the start of season four. Sanderson remembers, “Kim [Dickens, who plays Joanie Stubbs] had bought a house in L.A. And I had bought this one in Pennsylvania.” Dourif recalls the call. “I could tell from David’s voice I was not going to be in it anymore. So, I said, you’re gonna fire me, right? And he was aghast for half a second and said, ‘No. What I am saying is that they’ve canceled the series.’”
There’s always been an aura of mystery as to why the popular series suddenly ended. Milch explained the cancellation in a 2012 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “The budget was astronomical, easily higher than the NYPD Blue budget, and it was only half as many shows.” But at that time, HBO seemed unconcerned about cost. Milch says, “I never got a note about cutting down the expenses.” But no honeymoon lasts forever, and eventually the then-HBO president told Milch they were far over budget. “They said, if we agree to let you do four seasons, will you agree to cancel the show? And I said, no, I don’t want to talk that way. So they said, okay, well then we’re going to pull up at the end of the three seasons.”
Fast-forward to late 2018, and a story that has jumped ahead a decade, to 1889, and a gathering of all the usual suspects to celebrate South Dakota’s recently won statehood. The script is by Milch. The direction is by Daniel Minahan, who directed four episodes of the original series, as well as many of House of Cards and Game of Thrones, and last year shared the Outstanding Limited Series Emmy for American Crime Story.
Of course, in the intervening years, Melody Ranch had been busy as a location for many productions, including Django Unchained and Westworld, so Caso anticipated a lot of changes. “But no, Westworld used our Deadwood street pretty much as is, just added a few things here and there. And Django did the same thing. I thought it was a compliment, using our street the way we left it.” Not that Caso left it alone. “We tried to keep a lot of the old Deadwood, and introduced some of the growth of billboards. We introduced brick buildings and electricity. Deadwood has its first telephone. We leveled out the street a little bit.”
“The version of Jane I bring to this movie is already performing with Buffalo Bill Cody,” Weigert explains. “Wild Bill haunts her still. It’s kind of wonderful to get to return to a character after a dozen years, a very rare experience. She’s been gestating deep inside me the whole time. I remember when almost all of the women found ourselves in the hair and makeup trailer at one point, and we just clustered together, grabbing hold of the hand of another. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears, and just a sense of absolute connection.”
Sanderson, whose memoir, Yes, I’m that Guy. The Rough and Tumble Life of a Character Actor, will be published to coincide with Deadwood’s release, was happy to be back at Melody Ranch. “Dan Minahan had directed me in True Blood and the Deadwood series, so that gave me a little confidence.” Was it hard getting back into his role? Sanderson laughed. “You know, Farnum is me by another name. I had to accept that.” He did miss two actors who passed away in the interim. “Both terrific actors. Powers Boothe won an Emmy for playing the biggest mass murderer in American history, Jim Jones.” Then there was Ralph Richeson, who looked like a demented Gabby Hayes in his role as Richardson the Cook. “David took an extra and turned him into, I thought, one of the most interesting characters.”
Did Dourif find it difficult to get back into the skin of Doc Cochran? “No. The answer is, it was shockingly easy.” How did it feel to be back at Melody Ranch? “Sad.” After a very long pause, he explained, ‘“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?’ It was such a shock when it ended; no one was expecting it. But in this business, your life is about getting a door slammed in your face. There are those people, and there is that level of commitment, and there’s that love of what you’re doing. And you realize you haven’t gone anywhere near it since, and you’ve barely ever touched it before that.”
Maria Caso feels no such sadness. “Working on Deadwood has been the most rewarding experience of my career. Re-creating a Western town with such rich characters and such a talented crew and a beloved writer like David Milch is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And lucky me! I got to do it twice!”
The Deadwood movie will premiere on HBO this spring. If you’d like to refresh your memory, or if you’re new to Deadwood, all three seasons are available on Amazon Prime.
Rest In Peace
Henry C. Parke, Film Editor for True West, writes Henry’s Western Round-up online. His screenplay credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994), and he’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti Westerns.