Deadwood Déjà Vu After a 13-year hiatus, the cast and crew re-team to finish the tale.

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It appears that the uncharacteristically dapper Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) and Johnnie Burns (Sean Bridgers) remain Al Swearingen’s devoted thugs, still doing his bidding from the center of his enterprises at the Gem Saloon.
— All Photos by Warrick Page, Courtesy HBO Unless Otherwise Indicated —

“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!”

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Top-hatted master scoundrel George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) was top man in Deadwood when he rode out ten years ago, and appears to have prospered. McRaney had a strong role on Justified and was a central character in Longmire.

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.’”

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A more mature Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), who first came to Deadwood as sidekick to Hickok, reacquaints with Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), the sometime laudanum addict whose husband’s purchase of a gold claim set so much of the story in motion.

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.”

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Brad Dourif describes his Doc Cochran character as “a really damaged guy from the Civil War, somebody who was probably amputating legs because of gangrene. Deadwood was a place where he could get away, where he could do some good.”

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.”

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Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) returns to Deadwood not greatly changed in her habits, but changed a lot in her confidence. By now she’s a famous historical figure and an entertainer.

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.”

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Deadwood’s hotel operator-turned-first mayor, E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) utilizes that modern-day marvel, the town’s first telephone, presumably to do something underhanded and nefarious.

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.”

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Kim Dickens, fresh from playing Kevin Costner’s wife in The Highwaymen and four seasons of Fear the Walking Dead, is back as Joanie Stubbs, once a whore, but no longer under any man’s thumb.

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.”

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Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes) were partners in a general store when they first arrived in Deadwood. They still have each other’s backs. Hawkes was nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone.

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.

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As the procurer and saloon-operator who singlemindedly and almost singlehandedly built the town of Deadwood, Al Swearingen (Ian McShane) appears no less dissipated than when last seen, but he’s hardly aged a day. McShane, the former Lovejoy lead, currently stars for Starz in American Gods.

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.”

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While he no longer sports a badge, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) still carries a lawman’s gravitas, and has aged in a manner not unlike the real Wyatt Earp (who was a minor, and inelegant, character in the original series).

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

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Cy Tolliver was Powers Boothe’s second iconic Western role, his first being Curly Bill in Tombstone.
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Indiana-born Ralph Richeson worked in the circus and painted before he became an extra, then a character, on Deadwood.

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.

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Henry C. Parke

Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com