For more than fifty years, he has been writing novels—thirty in all, the plots ranging from Old West adventures to small-town comedies to contemporary domestic dramas. Born on the 3rd of June 1936, Larry McMurtry has co-written two other novels and published fourteen books of nonfiction—short memoirs, collections of essays, a travel book, and even biographies of such frontier figures as Crazy Horse—as well as reams of book reviews and essays. He has written or co-written more than forty teleplays and screenplays. As if that were not enough, he has also found time to carry on a fulfilling side profession as a “bookman,” as he likes to call himself, wandering around the country to hunt for rare books and overseeing a huge antiquarian bookstore that he opened in Archer City in the eighties.
Based on his extensive reading of western history, as well as on the stories he had heard his relatives tell on the front porch, McMurtry saw the Old West not as a romantic frontier but as a shatteringly lonely and often barbaric place, where few people found any happiness at all. Now McMurtry set out to prove this, opening his novel with two retired, hard-bitten Texas Rangers in the forlorn border town of Lonesome Dove.
The ex-Rangers, Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call, lead a cattle drive to Montana with a ragtag team of cowpokes, which includes a black cowboy, a bandit turned cook, a piano player with a hole in his stomach, a young widow, a teenager who is Call’s unacknowledged son, and a prostitute. On their journey, the group encounters psychopathic outlaws, vengeful Indians, buffalo hunters, gamblers, scouts, cavalry officers, and backwoodsmen. They endure perilous river crossings, thunderstorms, sandstorms, hailstorms, windstorms, lightning storms, grasshopper storms, stampedes, drought, and a mean bear. There are plenty of shootings and a few impromptu hangings. The prostitute, Lorena, is gang-raped. In the end, after McCrae is mortally wounded by Indians, he asks Call to bury him in a little peach orchard by the Guadalupe River near San Antonio, where he was once in love with a woman. Call dutifully transports his partner’s half-mummified body back to Texas.
McMurtry has said he was offered “maybe a ten-thousand-dollar advance” for Lonesome Dove, because his editor was not sure readers would want to buy a western the size of War and Peace.(McMurtry accepted the advance because he wasn’t sure people would want to buy it either.) But when Lonesome Dove was released, in 1985, it grabbed hold of the public’s imagination like no western of its time, selling nearly 300,000 copies in hardcover and more than a million copies in paperback.
Readers raved over McMurtry’s precisely drawn characters, his depictions of place, his ear for frontier idioms, and his action-packed set pieces. They learned lines of dialogue (“The older the violin, the sweeter the music”; “Ride with an outlaw, die with him”; Call’s unforgettable declaration after beating a surly Army scout to a pulp in front of shocked onlookers: “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it”). And they rejoiced in the details, whether about food eaten on the cattle drive (beans laced with chopped rattlesnake) or, say, medical treatment (a cowboy bitten by an angry horse is given axle grease and turpentine for his wound). For Texans, went one joke, Lonesome Dove had become the third-most-important book in publishing history, right behind the Bible and the Warren Commission report.
The book was given the Pulitzer the following year, and when it was inevitably adapted for the screen—CBS aired a four-part miniseries based on the novel in 1989, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall—a staggering 26 million viewers tuned in. Together, the novel and miniseries were arguably more influential in shaping Americans’ vision of the Old West.
TRIVIA AND FACTS
Lonesome Dove was originally a much shorter screenplay. It was written 15 years earlier by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdonavich. It was called ‘Streets of Laredo’ and was supposed to star John Wayne as Call, Jimmy Stewart as Gus, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon. Wayne dropped out, and that ended the project.
Streets of Laredo sat on the shelf for about 15 yearsuntil one day, McMurtry found an old bus that had “Lonesome Dove Baptist Church” inscribed on the side. He went home and finished the story as a novel, which was inspired by the lives of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1986.
3. The movie rights to the novel were bought by Motown, which made everyone stop and say “What’s going on?” Seems an odd fit, but not so. Suzanne de Passe, of Motown, along with Bill Wittliff, produced a masterpiece.
Robert Duvall turned down the role of Woodrow Callso he could play Gus.
Duvall said as they were making the film, he knew it would be a classic. He told his fellow actors, “We’re making the “Godfather of Westerns.”
Charles Bronson was supposed to play Blue Duck,but had to back out due to contractual obligations.
Lonesome Dove did not win the Emmy for Best Miniseries in 1989. That honor went to ‘War and Remembrance,’ which no one remembers. However, wrongs were righted at the Golden Globes where Lonesome Dove won best Miniseries and Duval, won Best Actor.
Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall were made honorary Texas Rangers for their heroic depictions of W.F. Call and Gus McCrae.
9 Gus’s body, the mannequin Call brought back from Montana to bury in Texas, is available for viewing at Texas State University, which owns the Lonesome Dove collection. The curator Steve Davis, told me that some people weep when they see Gus’s body. You can also see Gus’s hat, and the blacksmith’s poker that Call used to viciously beat the army scout to within an inch of his life.
Larry McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove to help people get over their romantic notions about cowboy life and cattle drives. He wanted to show the brutal hardships and difficult times cowboys faced on the frontier. In this he failed. There’s hardly a man or woman in Texas who wouldn’t trade in their suit and office job to get on a horse and drive cattle to Montana with Woodrow and Gus.
Lonesome Dove has sold more DVD’sthan any Western in Cinema History.
There is a longer version of Lonesome Dove– about thirty minutes longer, but we can’t see it. It is locked away somewhere and there are no plans ever to release it.