- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

“Lonesome Dove,” published in 1985 and distilled into a durably appealing television miniseries in 1989, is something of a modern phoenix. It evolved into a prestigious popular novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winner of 1986, and then the prototype for an ongoing franchise of TV Western sagas after gathering dust as an unproduced screenplay for more than a decade.

Originally, author Larry McMurtry and director Peter Bogdanovich planned to build on their successful 1971 collaboration, “The Last Picture Show,” derived from a McMurtry novel set in Texas of the 1950s. The new project would be an elegiac traditional Western about a trio of legendary frontiersmen. Former stalwarts of the Texas Rangers named Woodrow Call, Augustus McCrae and Jake Spoon, the characters were intended for John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, respectively. The working title was “Streets of Laredo,” used a generation earlier for a Paramount Western that starred William Holden.

If the ambitious new “Laredo” had been realized as planned in 1972, the co-stars would have ranged in age from 64 (Mr. Stewart) to 67 (Mr. Fonda). It’s possible that too many last-roundup, over-the-hill-gang connotations conspired to discourage Mr. Wayne, whose decision to bow out sank the project as a theatrical feature. Westerns had been out of fashion since 1969, when “True Grit,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were major attractions, but Mr. Wayne still had several reprises left in him as a Man of the West during the 1970s.

Only James Stewart lived long enough to see “Streets of Laredo” transformed into an epic novel and his abandoned role inherited by another actor. Admirably ready for the opportunity, Robert Duvall made his embodiment of the playful, loquacious, intrepid Gus McCrae a crowning professional highlight. This is probably the most winning performance of a movie career that is approaching half a century and includes a formidable number of classics from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Open Range.” The latter allowed Mr. Duval to draw on aspects of Gus McCrae while playing a cattleman of similar vintage called Boss Spearman.

In interview snippets appended to the video editions of “Lonesome Dove” 10 years ago, Mr. McMurtry reminded his audience that the dominant narrative thread of the story, a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in 1877, was never envisioned in the “Streets of Laredo” screenplay. The aging companions had remained much closer to home. In his eventual literary resurrection of the title, “Streets of Laredo” became a sequel to “Lonesome Dove.” Only the dour but indomitable Capt. Call remained alive, since Jake Spoon and Gus McCrae were memorable casualties of the trail in the original novel. Their resurrection became feasible when Mr. McMurtry wrote “prequels” titled “Dead Man’s Walk” and “Comanche Moon.” The entire tetralogy was duly re-enacted for television.

About this time 20 years ago, the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries was approaching the annual Emmy Awards as a seemingly prohibitive favorite, with 19 nominations in almost every eligible category. As it transpired, a sweep was not in the cards. The show took seven awards, including best direction for Simon Wincer, but most of the major prizes went elsewhere. Best actor eluded both Robert Duvall as Gus and Tommy Lee Jones as Capt. Call (they may have helped reduce each other’s vote totals), and “War and Remembrance” was named best miniseries. Far from highway robbery, but no doubt a letdown, as executive producer Suzanne De Passe intimates in her informative and endearing interview segments.

She knows vastly more about the miniseries than Mr. McMurtry, who declined to adapt his book and was not directly involved in the production, shot on locations in Texas and New Mexico during the latter half of 1988. Although “Lonesome Dove” was evidently regarded as too much book for a cost-effective Hollywood theatrical version, even if necessarily extended to a running time of three hours or more, its success as both novel and miniseries must have helped pave the way for the Academy Award-winning Westerns of the early 1990s, Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” (Not to mention the successors that ran out of luck with the public and critics, notably Ron Howard’s misbegotten “Far and Away” and Lawrence Kasdan’s estimable “Wyatt Earp.”) Although Mr. McMurtry and Mr. Bogdanovich were never reunited as collaborators on a big traditional Western, they did get together for another sort of sequel in 1990: the film version of “Texasville,” Mr. McMurtry’s satirical update on the characters from “The Last Picture Show.”

The Western reading market had never vanished, but it had never drawn a bonus quite as impressive as “Lonesome Dove,” a rich and evocative read that seemed to have irresistible command of historical time, place, character and vernacular from the opening paragraph. Better yet, it was a yarn that kept springing fabulous characters and startling episodes for about 800 pages.

The miniseries isn’t everything one could desire, but it proved more faithful and tough-fibered than anticipated. Several characters are vividly realized, none as consistently or enjoyably as Mr. Duvall’s Gus and none as patiently as Mr. Jones’ Call, who doesn’t get much of a chance to emerge as a powerful emotional instrument until the concluding episodes.

TITLE: “Lonesome Dove”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (first shown on network television in February 1989; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Simon Wincer. Screenplay by Bill Wittliff, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. Cinematography by Doug Milsome, with second unit direction and photography by Dean Semler. Production design by Cary White. Costume design by Van Broughton Ramsey. Film editing by Corky Ehlers. Music by Basil Poledouris.

RUNNING TIME: Four episodes totaling 384 minutes

DVD EDITION: Hallmark Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.artisanent.com

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