HBO’s cutting-edge story is revived as a film, showing viewers once again how the Old West truly looked and sounded.
David Milch had a dream. After scoring successes as a scriptwriter for Hill Street Blues and as a co-creator of NYPD Blue, the Yale University-educated writer-producer wanted to launch an even more ambitious TV series about dedicated law-enforcers. The big difference this time, however, would be the beat these new cops would traverse.
Specifically, Milch wanted to mount a weekly drama about the Urban Cohorts, a group of free-wheeling guardians who more or less improvised justice while patrolling the mean streets of ancient Rome during the time of Nero. As he would tell an interviewer for Salon.com years later: “I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law.”
When he pitched the project to HBO, the decision-makers were receptive to the concept, but there was one problem: The premium-cable network was already preparing Rome, a period drama set during the time of Julius Caesar. Maybe, just maybe, Milch could shift gears and change the locale for his project?
That, believe it or not, is how we got Deadwood, the critically acclaimed series about life, death, and the often-contentious process of community-building in the titular South Dakota mining town during the 1870s.
The show ran on HBO for three seasons, earning glowing reviews and attracting an extremely loyal fan base before its unexpected (and, for many faithful viewers, infuriating) cancelation in 2006. “I think that that ending was very wrenching for a lot of people,” says television historian Matt Zoller Seitz, “because it was like a sudden, unexpected death. ... I think everybody who was a fan of Deadwood knew the basic outline of the history of the actual Deadwood. And they knew from reading interviews with Milch what he wanted to show us, and how it was going to be. But then for the show to be canceled before we got to see all of that — look, I felt traumatized by it as a viewer. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about another show.”
Now there is good news for Seitz and the millions of other Deadwood devotees: After years of false starts and dashed expectations, HBO has resurrected the drama for a Deadwood movie scheduled to air this spring. Plot details remain relatively scarce, but the narrative reportedly takes place 10 years after the final Season 3 episode in the wake of South Dakota’s statehood. According to an HBO press release: “Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested, and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.”
Returning cast members include Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, John Hawkes, Anna Gunn, Dayton Callie, Brad Dourif, Robin Weigert, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, and Gerald McRaney, W. Earl Brown, Sean Bridgers, and Keone Young.
Of course, not everyone who has a hankering to see a prime-time western is likely to be pleased by the return of Deadwood. As far back as the first season, Milch told C&I in 2010, he met resistance from traditionalists because the down-and-dirty Deadwood “wasn’t the sort of western that people remembered from when they were growing up.”
Ironically, however, throughout its three-year run on HBO, Deadwood actually could claim at least one strong tie to western sagas of yesteryear. Veteran producer A.C. Lyles — who helped keep the genre alive with a series of small-budget, old-fashioned oaters starring the likes of John Ireland, Howard Keel, and Dana Andrews for Paramount in the 1960s — was corralled by Milch early on to serve as a consulting producer for the series.
As critic-historian Leonard Maltin wrote for IndieWire in 2013: “Convinced that Lyles was the only man left in town who knew anything about making westerns — he even worked as an associate producer on Rawhide for one season — Milch insisted that A.C. serve as a consultant for his series and sent a car to pick him up everyday and take him to the show’s permanent location at Melody Ranch. He was in his 80s at the time and reveled in every minute of the experience.”
“I don’t really call [Deadwood ] a western,” Lyles told C&I in a 2006 interview. “I call it a frontier story. Because it’s a little different from a traditional western. It’s more about the building of a town. David Milch created it, and he’s a magnificent writer — some of the dialogue is almost Shakespearean. But it’s also true to life, because David was a professor of literature at Yale for several years. He knows a lot about storytelling, and how to base fiction on facts.
“I know the language is a little rough,” Lyles added, chuckling at his own understatement. “But David did his research, and he knows that’s how it was back there.”
Oh, yes. That language. That dialogue. A lot of it ear-scorchingly obscene, and none of it printable in this magazine. Advance reports indicate there is more of the same in the Deadwood movie. And, again, Milch is not the least bit sorry.
“If you look back to westerns in the ’30s and ’40s,” Milch has told C&I, “the language and the conventions had more to do with [the Motion Picture Production Code] than with the way people really spoke at that time in the West. One of the chief stipulations of the [Production Code] was that any obscenity in word, thought, or deed was an offense against the laws of God and man, and will not be tolerated in our films. And my research into the West — rather than into the conventions of old movies — suggested to me that given the absence of statutory law, before turning to outright physical violence, people resorted to violence in language. Which included profanity.
“People who grew up in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s and so forth, they experienced the works of John Ford and other great westerns as a reality. Those stories were experienced as a reality. But that does not mean that they correspond to the way life was lived 150 years ago. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their allegiance to those conventions. And I’d be grateful if they didn’t begrudge what I feel are deserved allegiances to other story telling conventions.”
It’s a safe bet that the roughest of the rowdy wordplay will be reserved for Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, the unapologetically autocratic and ferocious foul-mouthed wheeler-dealer who emerged as the dark heart of Deadwood throughout its initial three-year lifespan.
Call it the perfect union of flamboyant actor and larger-than-life character, and you won’t be far off the mark. But, as Milch admits, it’s a match that very nearly didn’t happen.
“It’s actually a testimony to how wrong I can be sometimes,” Milch said, “that I very much resisted the idea of casting Ian McShane when it was first presented. I had originally written the role with Ed O’Neill in mind. Ed and I had worked on a cop show called Big Apple. So when HBO was resistant to that idea, feeling that Ed had appeared on too many network television shows, and proposed Ian, my kneejerk reaction was not friendly to the idea. And, of course, the minute he walked in, he just sort of took ownership of the role and my imagination.
“I wish I could be as happy about every other mistake I’ve made in my life as I am about that one.”
The Deadwood movie premieres this spring on HBO. Visit hbo.com for more information.
From the May/June 2019 issue. Photography: Warrick Page/Courtesy HBO