Veteran actor Bruce Boxleitner who began his career with a guest role on Gunsmoke comes full circle in the new film Far Haven.
Bruce Boxleitner is walking down the main street in the Mescal Movie Set near Tucson, Arizona, on an overcast September afternoon. But in his mind, he’s really taking a trip down memory lane.
“This is the fifth picture I’ve done here,” the veteran actor tells me, ticking off titles on a list that runs the gamut from Kenny Rogers as The Gambler (and its sequels) to the How the West Was Won TV series to the 1988 remake of Red River.
“And I played Wyatt Earp in a 1983 TV movie called I Married Wyatt Earp, with Marie Osmond as my wife. Now there’s some casting for you. That was in the wintertime here, and this town had these fantastic muddy streets because we had a lot of rain. That was the fun thing about it, because we’d shoot right through it.”
So far, the weather has been a good deal more cooperative during the filming of Boxleitner’s current project: Far Haven, an old-fashioned, straight-shooting western set for a fall 2023 premiere on the FAST (Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV) Cowboy Way channel.
Bailey Chase of Longmire stars as Hunter Braddock, a disgraced ex-soldier who returns to the title town for a shot at redemption — and a reunion with his two young children, who had been left in the care of his late wife’s father, Ben Watkins. Unfortunately, Watkins (Boxleitner’s character) is reluctant to turn the kids over to his disreputable son-in-law. Even more unfortunate, both men face a common enemy: Ambrose Masse (Martin Kove), a powerful local businessman who’s bent on grabbing land in the area before the railroad comes through.
Boxleitner has made his mark in a wide variety of TV and movie genres, most notably in the sci-fi universes of Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010) and the cult-favorite series Babylon 5. (Off camera, he has authored two sci-fi novels, Frontier Earth and Frontier Earth: Searcher, that depict a clash between extraterrestrials and humans in a Wild West setting.) But he’s always happy to get back in the saddle, even though it might take him a bit longer to mount a horse nowadays.
“I’m 72,” he says, announcing the information with a wide smile. (In May he turned 73.) “And I just keep plugging along. But when they said in the script here, ‘Ben sees Hunter Braddock over the horizon and he leaps onto his horse,’ well, no. He’s not going to be doing any leaping on horses. Back when I was 27, I just took the saddle horn and lifted myself up without even touching the stirrup. Here? I’m going to get up like a dignified man, OK? Take my time, answer my wife, and then I’ll take off.”
Here are some other highlights from my conversation with Bruce Boxleitner, edited for clarity and length.
Bruce Boxleitner and Nancy Stafford as Ben and Alma Watkins, the couple caring for their late daughter's children when their father returns to town.
Cowboys & Indians: You seem like you’re incredibly happy to be getting your cowboy on again.
Bruce Boxleitner: Well, I’ve been a space cowboy, and I’ve been a traditional cowboy. I have been all kinds of other things, too. I’ve been very fortunate to have a series in every decade since the 1970s. And you know what? We’re kind of hoping we’re going to make something out of this, because it’s a beautiful pilot, and it sets up a series. And I’m really glad to be associated with people who are dedicated to making television westerns again. That’s where I started. One of my first jobs was on the last episode of Gunsmoke. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
C&I: How so?
Boxleitner: Well, at the time, a bunch of us were in this apartment in North Hollywood. Young actors. And when one of us would get a TV job, we’d all make spaghetti and sit and watch and cheer on our friend. But when I saw the Gunsmoke episode, I was mortified. I went, “Oh, my God, I’m terrible. I’m terrible.” I actually went back to acting classes. I got ahold of this guy, Milton Katselas, a great acting teacher, and I said, “Look, you’ve got to just break me down and build me all up again. I’ve got to start anew, because I’ve been on Broadway already and everything — but television and film, they’re whole different mediums.” See, on the Gunsmoke episode, I was still playing to the back rows, instead of to the camera.
C&I: On the other hand, you got to meet James Arness, someone who played a key role in your life and career.
Boxleitner: I always say that I was fortunate enough to do three projects with Jim. We did How the West Was Won, and then a remake of Red River in 1988 for CBS. And then I did his very last movie, Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice. He was a mentor to me. I watched him a lot, and I learned what it was like to be the star of a television series. I always carried his memory, and I’ve often asked myself: “How would Jim do this? How would Jim handle this situation?” He had learned from John Wayne. He had been under contract at Batjac, Wayne’s production company. That’s what you do in this business. You watch and you learn.
See, when I came into television in Hollywood in the early 70s, adults were the stars of the show. If you were my age at the time, you were going to play the sons, the daughters, the kids in the show. Or the punks. I was always some kind of punk. I tried to kill Angie Dickinson on Police Woman. Stella Stevens? I was going to rape her. Oh, my God. Things like that. I was always one of those guys. I did all those shows as little guest spots, small roles, and built myself up. I just wasn’t coming into a starring role.
Bruce Boxleitner as Ben Watkins and Jesse Kove as his loyal ranch hand Clay Cassidy.
C&I: Is it true Arness personally pushed for you to be cast as his character’s nephew in How the West Was Won?
Boxleitner: That’s true. ABC didn’t want me. I tested with three or four other guys. Jim being the star, he had casting approval and was watching the screen tests. I won’t mention the name of the head of ABC at the time, but he’s standing in back of Jim in the screening room going, “Jim, we kind of like this number one guy. I want you to really take a special look.” But Jim said, “No, I kind of like this third fellow.” Basically, the ABC guy kept saying, “Yeah, he’s good, but...” Really, he kept trying to push this other actor because he was on a soap, and they were set on making him a primetime star. I thank God for Jim. He changed my life. And I never let him forget it either, because I met my first wife on that show. And we had two beautiful sons that are wonderful men now.
C&I: And you enjoyed a major career bump, right?
Boxleitner: My whole direction changed. Jim literally gave me a career, because you always need that one thing, a showcase for you. Guest star things are great, but a real showcase is what you’re always looking for.
C&I: And about ten years later, after you’d starred in the TV series Bring ’Em Back Alive and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, you and Arness reunited for the Red River remake.
Boxleitner: Yes, coming off Scarecrow and Mrs. King, I was in a good place with CBS. Steve Mills, who was the head of programming at the time, called my agent and said, “We’re doing a television movie of Red River, and we want to offer Bruce the Montgomery Clift role.” And naturally I was interested. I’d seen Montgomery Clift, that’s for sure. But I thought I could bring my own thing to the part. But I wondered: “Who’s going to play the John Wayne role?” And Mills told me, “You know, there’s only one person who could do it — but I don’t think he’ll ever do it because he respected The Duke so much.” Of course, he was talking about Jim.
So, long story short, I called Jim. Normally, he always wanted four weeks’ notice before doing something, to get himself camera ready. But he did this with only two weeks’ notice. He actually wanted to do it, I think, as a sort of homage to Wayne. I didn’t want to say, “You’re the John Wayne of television.” But let’s face the fact — back then, he was.
Was it the greatest picture? No. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed doing it with Jim. Especially that scene when he said, “I’m going to kill you, man. When? Someday. You’ll never know when, but I’ll be there. I’m going to kill you.” That shook me, I’m going to tell you. James Arness would never say that to me. He was my lovable Uncle Zeb. But when he said that with that growly voice he had at that time, it just shook me right down to my toes. Which was great.
C&I: Getting back to Far Haven, I have to ask — unless you’ve been warned about spilling beans or revealing spoilers — whether you’ll stick around if a series does happen.
Boxleitner: Let me put it this way — I’m not a kid anymore. But I want to be able to keep going. And here, I can be the head of my ranch. Which is fine, because I’ve always been looking for my Ben Cartwright role.
Bruce Boxleitner's Beloved Westerns
In no particular order, here are the 10 classic westerns Bruce Boxleitner put on his favorites list. As for TV, he’s thrown in one oldie but very goodie.
The Magnificent Seven (1960): Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson head an all-star ensemble in this remake of the Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954). Eli Wallach plays the leader of a bandit gang terrorizing a poor Mexican town until seven unlikely heroes stand against him. The unforgettable score by Elmer Bernstein may be the most famous western movie music ever composed.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The quintessential Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach star as the titular “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” — uneasy allies in a race to find buried gold. The climactic cemetery shootout is a masterpiece of direction and editing, as Leone builds the tension to a nearly unbearable crescendo.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): One of the best western buddy films ever made, the plot is loosely based on the real-life story of Hole-in-the-Wall gang outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid). Add a young and impossibly beautiful Katharine Ross and the Oscar-winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” and the result is screen magic.
The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah’s violent revisionist western portrays the end of the gunfighter era. As the Old West is seemingly coming to a close, a group of aging outlaws — including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, and Ben Johnson — band together for one last big score on the U.S.–Mexico border.
My Darling Clementine (1946): One of many cinematic takes on the Gunfight at the OK Corral, but so much more as well. The names alone declare it a classic: Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, Walter Brennan as Pa Clanton, Tim Holt as Virgil Earp, along with Cathy Downs as Clementine. Director John Ford and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald deliver one of the most beautiful black-and-white westerns ever made.
Stagecoach (1939): “Looks like you’ve got another passenger.” With those words, John Wayne began his ascent to the western’s most iconic movie star. Roger Ebert criticized the film’s representation of Native Americans as unenlightened; even so, it’s considered an important and influential film, hailed upon its release as a touchstone in the evolution of the western.
The Searchers (1956): John Ford returns to Monument Valley to direct John Wayne as Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards in his single-minded quest to find his niece, Debbie (a young Natalie Wood), after she is abducted in a raid that leaves his brother’s homestead in flames and family murdered. Despite what has been characterized as crude representation of Native Americans as savages, the film is considered a masterpiece.
Fort Apache (1948): Civil War veteran Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne) and arrogant Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) engage in a battle of wills at the remote cavalry post Fort Apache. The first in director John Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy,” the film was hailed by The New York Times as “one of the great achievements of classical American cinema,” and lauded for being among the first to portray Indigenous Americans with “sympathy and respect.” All that, plus Shirley Temple.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): The second in John Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” finds John Wayne in “a lusty romance and adventure of the Old West” (as the trailer puts it). As the mustachioed Capt. Nathan Brittles, Wayne is on one last patrol to stop an Indian attack while trying to evacuate a group of women. It’s Ford at his most cinematic — and sentimental.
Rio Grande (1950): This western romance marks the third in Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” and pairs Duke with the inimitable Maureen O’Hara. Posted on the Rio Grande, Wayne’s promoted Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke must contend with both attacking Apaches and the wife from whom he’s long been separated.
TV BONUS: Gunsmoke: Critics attribute the longevity of this classic TV western series, which ran from 1955 to 1975, to excellent scripts and excellent casting. The award-winning show starred James Arness as the stalwart Marshal Matt Dillon, keeping the peace in Dodge City, with a supporting cast featuring Amanda Blake as Kitty, Milburn Stone as Doc, Ken Curtis as Festus, and Dennis Weaver as Chester.
— C&I Editors
This article appears in our August/September 2023 issue, available on newsstands and through our C&I Shop.