overthinking the idiot box

April 24, 2006

History can make for great TV. For if we don't dramatize the past, then we're just...

Doomed to rerun it
From The Dove to the Mountain
The beginning of Larry McMurtry's television empire
by Jenni Powell

It was the evening of Sunday February 4, 1989. I was 10 years old and curled up on the living room couch next to my Dad. We'd just finished dinner in a hurry because there was something coming on TV that he just had to see. And what excited Dad inevitably excited me. Being 10, I wasn't quite prepared for what followed: I knew I was supposed to be watching a Western but this was far from the "shoot 'em ups" I was used to. This was a story of struggle, of transformation, of exploration, of life and death. This was the journey of over half-a-dozen men and women, all trying to reach their own goals, some succeeding...and others failing. Most shocking of all: some time the good guys didn't win.

This was Lonesome Dove.

As most of the greatest of things, Lonesome Dove the miniseries almost didn't happen. Lonesome Dove's first incarnation was as a movie script written my Larry McMurtry in 1971. It was intended to star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, with Peter Bogdonovich directing. Wayne turned it down and so the project was shelved. After ten years of waiting, McMurtry bought the script back and decided to adapt it into a novel. Shortly before the novel went to press, producer Suzanne De Passe was in Tuscon, Arizona where she and her good friend Gloria Stein decided to go out for Mexican food. Their friend Leslie Silco came along and brought along a friend, Larry McMurtry. McMurtry and De Passe hit is off instantly and made arrangements to have lunch together when both were in Los Angeles. It was at this lunch that De Passe asked if McMurtry happened to have anything lying around that he might like to see produced. He said he had just finished a novel that was just about to go into publication and would she like to read it? She eagerly said yes.

In an interview, De Passe describes receiving her copy of the novel Lonesome Dove: "It was rolled in on flatbed dollies of boxes and boxes of reamed papers. It was in unbound galleys". The novel in its bound state is about 935 pages, single-spaced. This "looked like about 200 Manhattan telephone books". She started taking home handfuls of the pages at night. She wasn't even halfway through and she knew she wanted it. She bought the production rights for an unprecedented $50,000. No sooner had she closed the deal, the phone calls started rolling in...Westerns were out, the book had been shopped all over town and no one wanted it...

But then Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize. And doors not only opened, they went flying off their hinges. De Passe was ready to start on the adaptation of the novel but found that McMurtry was no longer willing to do the adaptation himself. He put De Passe in touch with Bill Wittliff who, oddly enough, had been simply waiting around for De Passe's option on the novel to run out so he could buy it himself. Luckily for everyone, he and De Passe got along famously and he produced a beautiful script that stayed as true to the novel as possible. Wittliff said of the experience, "No one approached this like a television movie. Everyone had such respect for the novel that they put their hearts and souls into it." The script so impressed CBS that they agreed to let the series be 8 hours in length, something that hadn't been done since the Civil War epic North and South and was especially unprecedented considering the negative view Westerns were held in at the time. It was a $16 million dollar investment for the network.

It paid off. Lonesome Dove was the highest-rated miniseries of the last decade. It won 7 Emmy Awards. It spawned not one, but two television series (Lonesome Dove: The Series in 1994 and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years) as well as two sequels (Return To Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo) and two prequels, one of which just began filming in New Mexico and will star Val Kilmer (Comanche Moon).

"I pointed out things that were idiotic in the script", McMurtry has said, "but I've never seen the series."
A bit of a warning though: if you're planning on going out and getting the Larry McMurtry television boxed set (which I highly recommend), don't expect Return to Lonesome Dove to be included. Due to a quadruple-bypass surgery in 1991, McMurtry wasn't yet recuperated enough to participate in the project and CBS, eager to capitalize on Lonesome Dove's success, went ahead with the sequel without him. "I pointed out things that were idiotic in the script", McMurtry has said, "but I've never seen the series." He says the same of the four-hour miniseries Buffalo Girls which follows a fictionalized story of Calamity Jane played flawlessly by Angelica Houston (who also has a large role in Lonesome Dove and has appeared in many McMurtry projects). Though, personally, I have to say that Buffalo Girls is still definitely worth seeing and managed to crack the Nielsen top 10 even without McMurtry's imput.

Since Lonesome Dove, McMurtry has seen the majority of his 18 novels turned into films or television miniseries. His latest glory is the winning of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. He continues to rejuvenate a genre that was once called all but dead. "Every time they adapt one of my novels," he says, "they say it's too slow, too talky, too dark. They said it with The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, and Streets of Laredo. But Hollywood had never grasped what audiences know: Tragedy had always played".

Keep knowin' us Larry. Because we sure as hell can't quit you.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 15.