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All hat and cattle, too: Lonesome Dove still resonates 20 years after its premiere

Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones stood tall in Lonesome Dove.

Note to readers: CBS' four-night Lonesome Dove miniseries first rode into view on Feb. 5, 1989. Has there ever been a better western? On TV, hell no. And Dove also ranks at or near the top of the big-screen's all-time best horse operas. Twenty years later, this classic adaptation of Larry McMurtry's most prized novel reminds us that broadcast TV used to have high aspirations every once in a while. We won't see its likes again. This article was first published on Jan. 14, 1989.

LOS ANGELES -- The morning after: A commemorative Polaroid picture of Robert Duvall is tacked to a bulletin board in the CBS network's hotel hospitality suite. The uncontested star of CBS' Lonesome Dove is shown tangoing at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum with a tight-skirted companion whom he identified as his niece. They are framed by a painting of Tom Mix, among the hundreds of movie and TV cowboys enshrined at the spanking new museum. It might be wise to reserve an entire wing for Duvall's garrulous Gus McRae.

The night of: Duvall, inaccessible during the Texas and New Mexico filming of CBS' eight-hour adaptation of Larry McMurtry's masterwork, is a picture of conviviality amid television writers and relieved CBS publicists who had worried that he might be "difficult" or maybe even a last minute no-show at the big Dove promotion party.

"The first two hours are slow, just like the book," Duvall tells a reporter. "Once you get into the story, I think we'll be all right. So what kinda food they got here?"

Duvall's every utterance seems worth inscribing. His characterization of the retired Texas Ranger Gus McCrae is perhaps the premier television performance of the 1980s. Dove fits Duvall like a glove, and his participation in the CBS dramatization ensures its soon-to-be classic status. Without him, the whole shootin' match misfires.

"Naw," he protests moments after sharing an auditorium stage with six co-stars and two producers. "It's a nice family thing, ya know? We all got along pretty well. You can always do better, but I think we did pretty well."

Aw. Or more to the point, awe.

Robert Urich, star of seven basically interchangeable television series, including the recent Spenser: For Hire, quotes his agent as telling him, "Well, you do good work, and the critics have been kind to you recently . . . But if you're good in a scene with Robert Duvall, they're going to say, 'You know what, he's good.' "

Urich plays vagrant cowboy Jake Spoon; Ricky (Silver Spoons) Schroder, a child star looking for his first man-sized role, is man-child Newt Dobbs.

"I was nervous the first day to work with Bobby, because I respected him so much," Schroder says. "But after the first day, he opened up and he made me feel comfortable. There was no stopping me then, because I felt like I had some confidence and I can get in there and touch elbows with the big boys."

Duvall, in a brown suit and open-collared pink-and-white striped shirt, appropriately sits at the center of a group that includes Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston (Gus' lost love, Clara Allen); Diane Lane (Gus' gained love, Lorena Wood); Danny Glover (tracker/scout Joshua Deets); D.B. Sweeney (top hand Dish Boggett); and producers Suzanne de Passe, president of Motown Productions, and Dyson Lovell, described in a CBS press release as a free-lancer in the "trenches of filmed entertainment."

Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Duvall's principal saddlemate, the snarly Capt. Woodrow F. Call, cannot attend because of a previous movie commitment. Screenwriter William Witliff of Austin, who expertly adapted McMurtry's 945-page novel for home screens, has the flu and bunking somewhere in L.A.

Australian director Simon Wincer, whose credits include the feature film Phar Lap and the CBS miniseries Bluegrass, appears to be another story. A CBS spokesman says he may not have been invited. It also is acknowledged privately that Duvall and Wincer had frequent and extreme differences of opinion during the 90-day shoot.

On this night, however, Duvall is gracious, if not full of praise for Wincer's contributions.

"No, I hadn't really heard of him," he says. "And he brought a fresh kind of approach, and he was good with epic looks. It's hard to get somebody who can do that, get the quality of a film but yet work on a television schedule for months and months."

Television schedules are condensed, to put it charitably; hurry-up to put it mildly. Whatever the pace, the key to a strong characterization is preparation, Duvall says. Read on.

"The book was my guide for this character," he says. "I found that McMurtry gave me what I need to know. It's the Bible. The script was great, but the book was the catalyst. I mean, the book was it."

Simply put, the book takes readers on an epic, last-chance cattle drive from dusty, barren Lonesome Dove, Texas to the promised land of Montana. McCrae and Call, as dissimilar in temperament as Duvall and Wincer, lead their charges through dust storms, destruction, sudden deaths and redemptions. CBS entertainment president Kim LeMasters rightly judges it "the quintessential saga of the American West."

LeMasters unabashedly describes Lonesome Dove as a "project of love," and doesn't even sound corny saying so.

"If it doesn't do well, that's a shame," LeMasters says. "But I do know that Lonesome Dove will firmly have a place in Americana. It's got scope, it has grandeur, it has integrity. And I think that's not a bad thing to be doing."

Competition on opening night is expected to include NBC's The Sex Tapes, starring Vanessa Williams and Lisa Hartman in a drama about a blackmailing prostitute. In November, NBC counter-programmed a chapter of ABC's distinguished War and Remembrance miniseries with the insipid Vanna White movie The Goddess of Love.

Duvall's just had an affair of the heart.

"When I was doing The Godfather, I knew we were in for something big," he says. "From within our little circle, it seemed important. And when I was doing Lonesome Dove, I felt the same way. I've only felt that a couple of times in my life."