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Lou Diamond Phillips

The former young gun stands and delivers as Henry Standing Bear in A&E’s record-setting Western series, ‘Longmire.’

Photography: Shelle and Michael Neese

Lou Diamond Phillips has come full circle. Twenty-five years into his varied and successful career, he’s back making westerns.

And that’s great news for fans who loved him in Young Guns and Young Guns II. This time Phillips is riding high in the saddle as one of the stars of the A&E television series Longmire, the contemporary western crime thriller based on the Walt Longmire mystery novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson. Set in Big Sky country, the series set ratings records for the network when it premiered for a 10-week run in June.

The series stars Australian actor Robert Taylor as Sheriff Walt Longmire, a widower battling personal demons as he tracks down a murderer in the mountains of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Phillips plays the sheriff’s oldest and closest friend and confidant, Henry Standing Bear. The two go back decades: Henry and Walt served in Vietnam together and Henry is the godfather to Walt’s daughter, Cady. The owner of the Red Pony Saloon, Standing Bear relies on both his local pipeline at the bar and something he calls his OITs — Old Indian Tricks — bringing a keen sense of intuition to Longmire’s dutiful police procedure. Together they set out to rebuild the sheriff’s shattered life, one day and one mystery at a time. 

“As a contemporary western, there’s nothing like it on television today,” Phillips says. “The look of the show is amazing — there’s a rich and warm scope to the filming; it looks almost like a well-shot movie. And there’s something old-fashioned about the books and series: The stories are about decency and characters who have a code of honor and a bit of nobility about them.”

• Read about La Mesita Ranch, the backdrop for Phillips' C&I photo shoot.

• Read more about Longmire.

While Craig Johnson’s bestselling books serve as inspiration and a jumping-off point for the series, Phillips says viewers should expect different stories and plot lines, and a great repertoire of characters. One of the great characters is, of course, his own. Much more than a sidekick, Henry Standing Bear is proud of his Native heritage and becomes a liaison for Sheriff Longmire and the adjacent Cheyenne Reservation. Several of the story lines involve the politics and policies between the Indian and white worlds, and Standing Bear is in the thick of the conflict.

It’s an exciting prospect for Phillips, who says that when he got the Longmire pilot script more than a year ago, he immediately knew he wanted the role of Henry Standing Bear. “I fell in love with the script — the story had an amazing amount of depth,” he says. “When I met with the producers we really hit it off.” The creator of the Walt Longmire mystery books couldn’t be happier that Phillips got the gig. “Lou was the only one who auditioned for the role of Henry Standing Bear who dropped all the contractions from his scenes,” Johnson says. “From that, I knew he’d read the books.”

In fact, after being cast, Phillips read all seven of the then-existing Walt Longmire books (the latest, As the Crow Flies, was published earlier this year). In the process, he says, he became a bit intimidated. “I’ll never be as cool as the real Henry is,” Philips says. “He is a Northern Cheyenne man who was educated at [the University of California,] Berkeley and was a member of AIM, the American Indian Movement. He’s well-traveled, well-read, a great chef, and a wine connoisseur.”

And there’s a gravitas to the Longmire characters to live up to — as Phillips says, a kind of Gary Cooper or James Arness-Marshal Dillon mentality. As much as Standing Bear embodies a “cowboy up” attitude, he’s also a steward of his Native heritage. For Phillips, it was important to stay true to the Cheyenne culture and represent the people with honor, dignity, and authenticity. “As soon as I was cast, I flew up to Montana to meet Marcus Red Thunder, the man who was the inspiration for my character,” Phillips says. “I visited the rez, received a blessing from one of the Cheyenne elders, met with Tribal President Leroy Spang, participated in a sweat with a lot of the brothers, and got to experience their culture firsthand.” They were so taken with Phillips that they adopted him into the tribe.

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