The 'Deadwood' Cast Chats for a 10th Anniversary Oral History of the HBO Drama
David Milch's original vision was to create a TV drama about cops in Rome, during the time of Nero. "What had interested me was the idea of order without law," Milch said. "I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law." HBO already had "Rome" on the way, though, so when the network's executives asked if he could explore his idea in a different setting, "Deadwood" was born.
The series debuted ten years ago this year, and much has changed in the last decade of TV, in large measure because of the influence of "Deadwood." Both Alan Sepinwall in his book "The Revolution Was Televised" and Brett Martin in his "Difficult Men" include Milch's Western as one of the key shows that have helped usher in this new Golden Age of Television, which has left our viewing cup so runneth over we have to schedule binge-watching sessions just to keep up with all the great TV drama available to us.
In honor of the "Deadwood"-iversary, several of the beloved series' cast members — including actor/"Deadwood" writing staff member W. Earl Brown — shared with Yahoo TV their colorful tales of being cast on the show, their experiences working with the "mad genius" that is David Milch, what it was like to work on the "Deadwood" set (including the surprise set wedding that featured Milch as best man), how they felt about the show's use of profanity and the art of a Milchian monologue, and what made "Deadwood" such a special entry on their acting résumés.
Portrayed: Dan Dority, right-hand man to Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen, and was a member of the "Deadwood" writing staff
Previous roles: Mary's brother Warren in "There's Something About Mary"
Post-"Deadwood": Films "The Sessions," "The Master," "Draft Day," "Bloodworth," and "Wild," guest roles on "Bates Motel," "Justified," "American Horror Story," "Rectify," and "Grey's Anatomy," and co-starring in Oscar winner John Ridley's fall 2014 ABC drama pilot "American Crime"
Portrayed: Wild Bill Hickok, legendary gunslinger
Previous roles: Starred in and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for writing the original song "I'm Easy" for Robert Altman's "Nashville"
Post-"Deadwood": Guest roles on "Dexter," "The Big Bang Theory," "The Following," "Raising Hope," and "NCIS," and co-stars in FX's upcoming "Fargo" series
Portrayed: Joanie Stubbs, the madam at Cy Tolliver's Bella Union
Previous roles: "Hollow Man" and "House of Sand and Fog"
Post-"Deadwood": "The Blind Side," "Footloose," and the upcoming "Gone Girl," roles on "Lost," "Friday Night Lights," "Treme," and "Sons of Anarchy," and co-starring in the CBS fall 2014 drama pilot "Red Zone"
Portrayed: Jack McCall, the drunk who killed Bill Hickok, and Francis Wolcott, the murderous advance man for George Hearst
Previous roles: "A Minute with Stan Hooper," and guest roles on "NYPD Blue" and "The X-Files"
Post-"Deadwood": Films "No Country for Old Men," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," and "Winter's Bone," guest roles on "ER," "John From Cincinnati," "Damages," and "Burn Notice," starring role in the just-concluded Fox comedy "Raising Hope," and will star in the Amazon original series drama pilot "Hand of God"
Portrayed: Doc Cochran, Deadwood's town physician (his performance earned one of the show's three Emmy acting nominations)
Previous roles: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Mississippi Burning," and voices Chucky in the "Child's Play" horror movies
Post-"Deadwood": Guest roles on "Fringe," "Psych," "Wilfred," "Once Upon a Time," and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and movies "Halloween" and "Halloween II," and Werner Herzog's "The Bad Lieutentant: Port of Call — New Orleans" and "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done"
Portrayed: Jewel, the disabled cleaning woman at the Gem Saloon
Previous roles: Cousin Geri on "The Facts of Life," where she became the first person with cerebral palsy to have a recurring role on a TV series
Post-"Deadwood": Guest appearance on "Alcatraz," a co-starring role in the upcoming movie "Fists of Faith," wrote the 2011 autobiography "I'm Walking as Straight as I Can," co-hosts the weekly LA Talk Radio show "Perfectly Imperfect," and is featured in the all-star documentary "CinemAbility" as an advocate for better portrayals and employment of disabled actors in Hollywood
Portrayed: Trixie, a prostitute at the Gem Saloon
Previous roles: "Tombstone," "The Green Mile" and guest appearances on "NYPD Blue" and "Six Feet Under"
Post-"Deadwood": Guest appearances on "Lost," "ER," "John From Cincinnati," and "Sons of Anarchy," co-starred on "Caprica," plays Mrs. Everdeen in "The Hunger Games" movies, and stars as Abby Donovan on Showtime's "Ray Donovan"
Portrayed: E.B. Farnum, owner of the Grand Central Hotel and self-appointed Deadwood mayor
Previous roles: "Blade Runner" and "Newhart," where his Larry famously had a brother Darryl, and another brother named Darryl
Post-"Deadwood": Played Sheriff Bud on "True Blood," has guest starred on "Bones" and "Mike & Molly," and stars in the upcoming movies "The Griddle House" and "Assassin's Fury"
Portrayed: Calamity Jane, a former war scout who comes to town with friends Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter (her performance earned one of the show's three Emmy acting nominations, along with Dourif and Ian McShane)
Previous roles: "Angels in America" and guest roles on "NYPD Blue," "CSI," and "Cold Case"
Post-"Deadwood": Recurring roles on "Lost," "Life," "Law & Order," "Chicago P.D.," and "Sons of Anarchy," and film roles in "The Sessions," "Concussion," and the upcoming movies "Mississippi Grind" and "Pawn Sacrifice," in which she plays the eccentric, accomplished mother of chess legend Bobby Fischer
The Cast of "Deadwood" Heads West
Ian McShane (Al Swearengen): They came over here and said "Do you want to do it?" I said, "The last f--king thing I want to do is a f--king American series." They said it was for HBO, David Milch [had] written it, and Walter Hill [was] directing the pilot. Well...
Geri Jewell (Jewel): It was 2002. I was at Horton & Converse drugstore in Santa Monica, standing in line. This man turned around, and he said, "Oh, my God. Are you Geri Jewell?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I'm a huge fan of yours." I said, "Thank you." He said, "I haven't seen you on TV in a long time." I said, "True." He said, "Want to be on a TV Western?" I thought he was joking. He said, "In case you don't recognize me, my name is David Milch." He wrote his phone number on a prescription pad for an antidepressant and told me to call him. I met with him a month later, at Paramount, to discuss "Deadwood." I was literally the first character cast by Milch.
Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in 'Deadwood'
Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in 'Deadwood'
[And yes, he did end up using the "Dead Man's Walk" wig on "Deadwood."]
Brad Dourif (Doc Cochran): I did an audition, and David [Milch] apparently really liked it. They started talking money. It didn't look good. I said, "No." Then my girlfriend said, "You're not going to pass this up." She called my agent, and my agent got all over it. We hacked something out that wasn't great, but it was better than it was before. Then I went in because I had to read for HBO. When I went in, David came over and sat down next to me and said, "Listen. Do you see anybody who looks like you?" I said, "No." He said, "That should be telling you something." We went into a room, because he wanted to talk. He can talk... three hours later, all these panic calls were going all over the place, because nobody could find us, and they thought I never came, that I was a complete flake, and how could they ever work with me? Meanwhile, I'd been sitting in the office with David for three hours.
Robin Weigert (Calamity Jane): I was in New York. This was one of these rare instances where the showrunner and the director of the pilot came to New York, physically. It wasn't like you put yourself on tape, and good luck to you. They really canvassed to try to find these more obscure, difficult-to-find characters. That was just my good luck. Had I not been able to be in the room with them, I don't know how I would have come across. I put together elements with my own wardrobe. I happened to have some sort of bowler hat and some things that I could pull together to create the look I wanted. I found this odd sort of voice and physicality from looking at pictures of the real Calamity Jane online. Then I tried to sort of animate these still images I found and figure out what kind of voice might have come out of that mannish-looking woman. I came up with pretty much what you saw in the series for the very first audition. I just went as far as I could in this characterization and thought I was being real badass. The feedback came back from that first appointment: "Loved the vulnerability," which was not what I was going for. I was not in pursuit of vulnerability whatsoever. I was in pursuit of being this kickass woman. I thought, "Boy, I really did that wrong."
[For a third audition,] they wanted to fly me out to Los Angeles. I had never set foot in L.A. It was a big deal. I was nervous and all of that... so I went to the same costume shop and rented [a costume I'd used for the second audition]. I traveled with this costume. I thought, "If anybody at HBO sees me out of costume, they're going to know I'm too diminutive to fill out the dimensions of this character," so I walked across the street dressed in this outfit, from my hotel [to HBO]. I walked in there, and I auditioned again. Then, miraculously, and it was the same day, I got a call that I had gotten the part: "You pretty much have to move everything in a week." It was so overwhelming, both on the level of great news and totally terrifying. That's how I got it. I got it by putting on my costume. Then I ended up, by accident, on the plane home with David Milch, and he very politely offered to carry my costume for me, which couldn't have been more embarrassing.
Garret Dillahunt (Jack McCall and Francis Wolcott): I remember riding down the West Side Highway on my bike, going to Chelsea Piers to audition for Doc. It was all that was left. I was originally scheduled to audition for [Seth] Bullock when they came to New York. Walter and David were doing this audition thing, but they found their Bullock before they even got to New York. I'd been very excited about auditioning for "Deadwood." People don't know what to do if they don't have you in a box. People thought I was a cowboy my entire time in New York. I thought, "Well, finally here's a cowboy, then." And then they found Bullock before I even got there. I said, "There's got to be something else I can audition for." They said, "The only series regular left is the doc." I went in sort of hoping that I could get something else. There were all these great guys in the waiting room that looked like [they should be] Doc. Older than me, nice bellies on them, and beards. I went in and read, then started to talk. I said, "I know I'm not a town doc guy." David said, "Whoa, that's self defeating. Would you read somebody else?" I said, "Yes. That's what I was hoping you'd tell me." He gave me Jack McCall to read, and there it was.
Paula Malcomson (Trixie): I initially read for Alma, Molly Parker's character. I came in and read it. I could tell that they liked me, but... I brought up that I really loved the Trixie character, and they said, "Come back and read," and I did. I felt like I would get it. I felt like I could do something with that role, and it was right for me, more so at that point in my life than playing the rich lady. I just liked Trixie. I liked her spunk, and I always loved the possibilities for her. I was able to fulfill them with David.
W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority): They sent me the script. I liked it because I've always loved Westerns. I grew up playing cowboy, and I still have all my Johnny West toys from when I was a kid. I have my actual toys from when I was five. Anyway, I read it, and Dority only had four or five lines, and they were minimal. It was just a word here and there. I told my agent, "You know, I have no interest in being the thug in the shadows for seven years." I said, "I want to read Jack McCall. I know he dies early on, or he's run out of Deadwood after he kills Hickok." It was only four or five episodes for McCall. I said, "It's a much better part. I want to read for that." I go in and [casting director Junie Lowry Johnson] goes, "You've got Dority, right?" I said, "No, we're reading McCall." She goes, "OK, alright. Let's read both. Let's do McCall first, and then we'll do Dority." We go in. We do McCall, and then she said, "Alright. Let's do Dan Dority." We do it, and Milch, as I'm reading it, he lights up. He says, "Alright, we're going to do this again. When you say this, when you say that line, what you're thinking is..." He goes into this whole background of why I'm saying a word. That's when it soaks in to me, "This guy doesn't write thugs in shadows." Yeah, he's absolutely obsessive on things, but that was when I started to get excited, like, "Oh s--t. I want to be a part of this."
Ready Sets? Go
The series was filmed at the Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita Valley, California, which was once owned by Western actor and singer Gene Autry. Among the other TV shows filmed on Melody Ranch sets: "Gunsmoke," "The Lone Ranger," and "Hopalong Cassidy," as well as films like Gary Cooper's "High Noon," John Wayne's "Stagecoach," Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," and "Wild Bill," Walter Hill's movie that led to Keith Carradine's role as Bill Hickok in "Deadwood."
W. Earl Brown: The star of the show is the town. That's what it's about. It's how people tend to cleave together, and social order forms out of chaos. That's the primary theme of the entire show, so therefore the town itself is the star. People would come to visit and want to go to the set. Most sets are f--king boring, really. "Deadwood" was the one place that was so immersive, especially when we were shooting at night, because we shot a lot by torch. We used minimal lights. Going there at night, when you couldn't see the surrounding area at all, it was like stepping back in time. It really was this kind of other world.
A quick look at Season 1 of "Deadwood":
Robin Weigert: In my weird reality, where I had moved from New York to L.A. and I had never been to L.A. before, the "Deadwood" set felt more real that the "set" I was living in, this strange world of palm trees and billboards. That was much less real to me than the world I was living in as [Jane]. I loved that you could walk inside and find such detail there, even on a day when that particular aspect of the set wasn't being used. There was something that really made it feel like a place too, in a way that a lot of sets are not. That made it completely immersive. One of the extras, I remember, fell so in love with the set, or I should say there were two extras that fell in love with each other and then got married on the set. We were invited to the wedding, the whole thing. David Milch was enlisted to be best man and give the bride away. He very generously performed the role. I don't know how much he relished that he had to wear a little bit of a costume that just was not his style, but he did it anyway.
Kim Dickens in 'Deadwood'
Kim Dickens in 'Deadwood'
Garret Dillahunt: You walk around that corner. You leave your trailer and head around the corner past Doc's office and take a left after you pass Bullock's house, and then you're in the street and you can't see anything else. Everyone's in period clothes, and you've got these crazy, insane, beautiful extras who have done things like left law school to be extras here and growing their beards and have full-blown characters they've invented for themselves. You're just like, "Alright. I'm in another time where it's alright to stand like this, where you don't have to be ashamed to use language to its full extent." It was a big help, like a time machine.
David Milch, described by all the actors we talked with as a genius, was specifically referred to as a "mad genius" by a few, or as W. Earl Brown puts it, a "terrific storyteller": Milch has a mind like a shark, and "it just doesn't stop swimming." In terms of production style, that led to a very different kind of set for "Deadwood," where Milch would change his mind about storylines often and on the fly, and where cast and crew were frequently waiting on scripts for scenes they were to film that day. Some actors find it impossible to work that way indefinitely — in addition to making it difficult to prepare as an actor, it also makes it difficult to control your schedule for your non-working hours — some learn to adapt to it, and some say they thrive creatively in such an environment.
Kim Dickens: We didn't really have full scripts, ever, after maybe the third episode. You would get your pages the night before and show up. Sometimes you had to show up to set because you knew there was going to be a scene, and they were waiting on the pages. We were there in the trenches, and happily so, because it was so rewarding. If you're not a team player, if you can't play ball that way, you're not going to be there. You're not going to stay. It's so artful. I can't understand why people wouldn't want to... as an actor, you have to be pretty malleable as to how you work. You can use your technique and whatever you need to do, but you still have to be pretty malleable. I find that every job is so completely different, the way people work. Some showrunners won't chime in at all. On the other hand, David is there with just this poetry flowing out of him, of insight and knowledge, and inspiration. And it's give-and-take. He takes things from the actors that are there, and what he sees coming out of them that they might not even be aware of. You've got to be willing to play that way. After a while, you get used to the mystique and the metered prose of it all. You find quick ways to learn it.
Brad Dourif in 'Deadwood'
Brad Dourif in 'Deadwood'
Paula Malcomson: Some of the stuff I wanted... I thought the relationship with Sol Star was really good, and I meditated on that. Then it ended up on the page. There were things like that that would happen. That's just how you work with David. You imagine it, and sometimes it becomes... you don't even have to talk about things sometimes. It doesn't happen every day. I love what David gave her and what he did with that character. Initially, she was supposed to die in Episode 4. She was going to kill herself. It's a testament to David's strength as a writer that he keeps characters around. He doesn't have to stick to that course. It's unexplored waters for him, and he's willing to go whatever way the story tells him to go.
Garret Dillahunt: I loved it. Some people don't like it. In my rose-colored hindsight glasses, it seemed to me that everyone was just thrilled about the whole process, but I'm sure I'm being naive about that. For me, I loved it. When that happened, it was a sign of something exciting going on on set that was making him think of something new, something to add, a way to make it better. I don't know what's not exciting about that.
Several "Deadwood" characters were based on real-life people — Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, Jack McCall, and Wild Bill Hickok, to name a few — but, thanks to another of Milch's habits, that of closely observing his stars, several of the actors ended up inspiring aspects of the characters and storylines.
Paula Malcomson: In some ways, when you work with David, you're co-writing a character. Not to take credit, but he's using you. He's incredibly perceptive. He plays to all your strengths, incorporates any kind of idiosyncratic behavior that you might have into the [project]. That's the beauty of working with him. Life starts to imitate art, and vice versa. It's just a really beautiful experience.
Geri Jewell: I wrote the backstory for Jewel after we met at Paramount. I met with Milch and all his writers, in the commissary. He walked me out to the car, and he said, "Forget about everything we talked about, everything you heard." I thought, "Oh, my God. I f--ked it up." I said, "Excuse me?" He said, "I want to see what's inside of you," and he pointed at my chest. "I want to see what you can do. I want you to do your research." He gave me a book on that era, and he told me to research other books and for me to write the backstory. I wrote it, and I sent him about... I don't know. I don't remember now, how many pages I faxed to his office. He called me within 20 minutes and said, "Oh my God. You're a brilliant writer." He said, "I love 99 percent of it." I said, "What part don't you like?" What's interesting is he didn't like the name I chose for her. It was Crazy Kate. I said, "But I like Crazy Kate." He said, "No. Her name is going to be Jewel." I thought, "Oh, here we go again." I was cousin Geri on "Facts of Life," and now I'm Jewel on "Deadwood."
W. Earl Brown: Richardson, E.B.'s whipping boy, was played by a background guy. He could actually act, and he had that hangdog look. In one scene where he was in the background, he just responded naturally to something, and Milch saw it on the monitor. Milch walks up to him and says, "Who are you?" "I'm Ralph Richeson." "No, no, no, no. Who are you in this camp?" David said. "Tell you what. Come up with a backstory. How did you land here? Why don't you write that down? Write me two pages." I think David changed it all, but he loved the idea of E.B. Farnum, Shakespeare's fool, having a whipping boy. That was how Richardson became one of the main characters. It was literally the background actor's dream come true, being picked out of the background.
William Sanderson (E.B. Farnum): He'll pick your brain. For some reason, he needed E.B. as some kind of center at the hotel. He started out basing him on the first mayor of Deadwood, but over the years E.B. turned into a complete buffoon. I think that's [Milch] basing it on something he saw in me. I don't know how the man works. Every character in there is a piece of him, though, like Tennessee Williams characters, I think.
Kim Dickens: I remember this one time with Dayton... Charlie, his character, was becoming an entrepreneur, so to speak. He was going to open a postal service, Utter Freight and Postal Delivery. Charlie had to start dressing like a businessman. Janie Bryant, our brilliant costume designer, put him in a long frock coat. Dayton, the actor, was uncomfortable in this long dress coat. He was asking everybody on set, "What do you think of my coat? Is it like a dress? Does it look like I'm wearing a dress? Am I in a dress? What's the deal?" David then wrote that for the character. That became his whole motivation, that whole episode. There are several scenes between me and Charlie Utter, and Jane and Charlie Utter, Jane telling him how ridiculous he looked, and him asking me if I thought he looked ridiculous. David turned it into the most beautifully human storyline.
Garret Dillahunt in 'Deadwood'
Garret Dillahunt in 'Deadwood'
This is all a story just to tell you how things work out the way they should. But I was going to shave my hairline back and we were talking about this prosthetic nose piece, because [Hearst] had this great beak of a nose and as a way to disguise myself so people wouldn't know I was the same guy that played McCall. I was doing a play back east when David called and said, "Look, it just seems like, as we flesh out Season 2, Hearst is going to be more of just a presence, just an off-screen threat that's not there yet." I was walking around in some field on a break from rehearsal in Massachusetts, and I was really devastated, but keeping that out of my voice, being cool and "whatever's best for the show, David," which is how I feel. But you want to be a part of it.
But then he said, "But there's this other guy who I think is right in your wheelhouse, this advance man for Hearst." I didn't need to be sold on it. I was like, "Whatever. I'll sweep up." Which would be an endless job on "Deadwood," but whatever. So that's how Wolcott came about; he made up this other guy.
The Art of Language
The show was famously liberal with its use of profanities, which some critics focused on more than the Shakespearean-like complexities of the "Deadwood" language. Just how many times did "Deadwood" citizenry drop an F-bomb, for example? Nearly 3,000 times in 36 episodes, according to The West Virginia Surf Report, which breaks the use of the word on the show down by season, by episode, by segment, and "FPMs"... think about it. There you go. Milch's cast defends the writing staff's dialogue, profane and otherwise, however, for its beauty, if not its brevity. Everyone appreciated what wonderful words they were given to say, even if Milch's last-minute script deliveries often meant they had little time to rehearse saying them.
Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, W. Earl Brown, and Sean Bridgers in 'Deadwood'
Ian McShane: It's not just a Western; it's an entertaining social history lesson. The language is difficult, it has dense storylines, and you have to give as much to the show as the show gives to you... The characters didn't become static, they weren't one-dimensional. Even the smallest characters were filled out, and I felt I was watching a great saga unfold that I was part of in a very important way.
Timothy Olyphant (Seth Bullock): [On how he'd describe "Deadwood" to his friends] I'd say, "It's kinda like Shakespeare." But that sounded so pretentious, although that's exactly what it is — and that's been validated when critics said the same thing... When an episode is over, you're disappointed that everyone doesn't talk that way.
Watch a promo clip of Season 2 of "Deadwood':
Keith Carradine: The language I was given to speak by David Milch, that everyone was given to speak... the swearing was transcendent. It was a kind of a dark, English poetry, in terms of his ability to take profanity to such an extraordinary place, where it ceases to be offensive, and it just becomes riveting. I thought that was genius on his part. Language is at the heart of storytelling. I don't think there's a writer out there who understands that better than David Milch. The wonderful thing about working with Milch on "Deadwood" was he's a phenomenal mad genius of a writer. He gave us all the most extraordinary things to do and to say, and the emotions to play. That was one of the great joys of my life, playing that part.
There was a lot of sort of argument about that by the old school who said, "No, cowboys don't swear, and they're gentlemen." That was a conceit that was established back in the '30s and '40s, as part of the censorship of moviemaking. It wasn't necessarily historically accurate, but people have come to accept that that's how it was. But in fact, if you really do your research on an outlaw community like Deadwood... [people] were there because of the gold. There was this rumor there was gold. All of a sudden, people just poured in and set up camp, and created this town where there were, basically, no laws. When you're living in that kind of anarchy, and when it's sort of an alpha male-dominated society, and the women are exploited, it's a really hard life. One of Milch's points about the language was that this is how you spoke in order to present yourself as someone not to be messed with. You presented yourself as being someone who the others had to be careful of, because this is who you are. The language had as much to do with that as anything. In that regard, I thought it was brilliantly executed.
Geri Jewell: There was a line that I said in that dance scene, "Say, 'I'm as nimble as a forest creature.'" Remember that line? In the script that I got and throughout the rehearsals, I never said it. Then at the last minute, David comes up to me backstage and he says, "Say 'I'm as nimble as a forest creature.'" I looked at him, "I'm as nimble as a forest creature." He said, "No, say 'Say, 'I'm as nimble as a forest creature.'" I said, "I'm as nimble as a forest creature." He said, "What, you can't say 'say'? Then say it. Can you remember that line?" "Yes, 'Say, 'I'm as nimble as a forest creature.'" He gave me that line at the last minute. He was playing with me.
William Sanderson in 'Deadwood'
William Sanderson in 'Deadwood'
Garret Dillahunt: I think what made David special was that that dialogue was easy to memorize. Do you know what I mean? If you just glanced at it, you'd think, "Oh my God, I've got to study this," but it's so good, and it made such sense. I've had trouble memorizing the easiest stuff because it's just not as good. Even though it seemed elevated, it seemed human and it made sense. It was nothing but exciting for me when he would scream out a new line from behind the camera or laugh and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now do this."
W. Earl Brown: In the pilot, I improvised a line. That's a huge no-no. You follow the punctuation, because David writes in meter. It was just a few words, and they just slipped out in the moment. It was the scene where Bullock and Star come into town and I say, "Fifteen dollars payable every week," or whatever the money was, "to Mr. Swearengen at the Gem Saloon." Bullock says, "Where's the Gem?" I was just supposed to say, "You'll find it," and turn and walk away. I said, "You'll find it. Everybody does," and I turned and walked away. Milch comes over to me. He's staring at the ground. He goes, "Well, I guess I'm going to have to call WGA." I said, "What?" He goes, "Yeah, get an adjudication over who wrote this f--king thing, me or you. What'd you say?" My mind is racing. I'm like, "What the f--k? What did I say?" And then I said, "Oh, 'You'll find it. Everybody does.'" He nodded his head and called the script supervisor over, and he goes, "Write this down. Tell her what you said. Never quote me on this, because I'll f--king deny it, but that works. That turn of phrase works."
Riding Off Into the Sunset
In May 2006, fans learned "Deadwood" would not be renewed for a fourth season. Season 3, which would premiere in June that year, would be the show's last. Though the situation was more complicated — HBO didn't own the series outright, and "Deadwood," especially under the Milch method of production, was very expensive to produce — ultimately it came down to HBO wanting to wrap up "Deadwood" in a six-episode fourth season, and Milch rejecting the idea of ushering a rushed conclusion to the story. "I did not want to accept a short order. We couldn't have done the work the way we wanted. I didn't want to limp home," he said at the time. "My old man used to say, 'Never go anyplace where you're only tolerated.'" Fans were shocked and disappointed by the cancellation of the series, as were most of the show's cast, especially when it became less and less likely that talk of a pair of "Deadwood" movies that would tie up the story would ever come to fruition.
Geri Jewell: People were so pissed about it being canceled. Then pissed about the movies never being done. I honestly think that Milch wanted to do the movies. The problem is, how to get that huge cast together again at one time. I think there was effort to do it, but to pull that whole cast together is going to take probably David Copperfield [getting] involved.
W. Earl Brown: With "Deadwood," we were all like family. I'm actually seeing Ian [McShane] tomorrow morning for breakfast. We still all keep in touch with one another, but we never got to say goodbye. It's one thing when it's over, the show's run its course, and you write your last chapter on your own terms. Our show didn't end. It just stopped, so on a personal level, that was difficult. It's hands down the best thing I've ever done, and I'm proudest of it. It threw me into a depression that lasted for 14 months [when it was canceled]. When the cancellation happened, I was thrown for a loop. I had the worst 12 hours of my professional life so far. What became "Bloodworth" — we shot it under the title of the novel, "Provinces of Night" — it was in preproduction because we had the money. We were in preproduction in Wilmington, North Carolina. Within a 12-hour span of time, "Deadwood" was canceled, and "Provinces of Night" lost their money.
Robin Weigert: It's interesting where the show did happen to end, not by design, but by accident. It ends with the antihero riding off into the sunset. It's like the bad guy of that season has more or less gotten away with it, and off he goes. There were ways in which, as a Western, "Deadwood" was far from conventional. It didn't valorize cowboys and all of that, the way most of them [tend] to do. There's a certain poetry to the way it did end on the opposite note that most Westerns end on. That was an interesting accident of fate, I guess.
What Might Have Been
If there had been a fourth and fifth season, or if those plans for a pair of wrap-up movies had happened, or if the actors had had their druthers about certain storylines for their characters.
W. Earl Brown: Yes, and a few years ago, it came close to fruition. Chris [Albrecht] talks about it in the book "Difficult Men." He offered David two movies or six episodes to wrap it up, which, according to him, was just the beginning of a negotiation, trying to rein in Milch. I know what the tentative plans for the two movies were something that historically really happened; the town flooded. We were going to flood in Season 4, because we had production designs drawn up, how we were going to do it within the budget. It was going to flood, and then Deadwood was going to burn to the ground, which it really did. Those were the penciled-in plans for Seasons 4 and 5. Now, Milch being Milch, that could have changed at any given point. But those were the spoken plans of our arc, where we were going.
Anna Gunn in 'Deadwood'
Anna Gunn in 'Deadwood'
Robin Weigert: David was really exploring the way society had formed. I always know, when I'm watching a television series, that the series is trying to hit its stride when there can be a nonverbal montage sequence and you're totally with everything that everybody is thinking and feeling, when you just go from face to face to face of the characters that have been created. The first big communal event that happened in "Deadwood" was the death of Hickok. It touched every single character. There is one of those beautiful things with the music on where you're with McCall and you're with Jane and you're with Charlie, and you're with Bullock and Alma. You just go from character to character and sit with them in this horror that is the loss of their hero. How it hits every single person in a different way is part of it too. Swearengen, everybody. It's a community, suddenly, and you didn't even know it was becoming one. This is a community that is defined by these tragedies, where suddenly you're all together in the experience. That's really true, don't you find, of life as well? New York, 9/11, was like that. I was just this New Yorker, like we all are, and then suddenly the towers fell and we were this community of American citizens that were completely bonded. It was just this totally galvanizing thing. In "Deadwood," I think if we'd gotten to do the season where the fire happened, which is a historical event, there would have been even more deep exploration of that. That's the stuff that really turned me on in the series, watching the undeniable fabric of relationships that were there. All these different people of different classes and different stations in life coming together. It's amazing that they pulled that off.
Keith Carradine: [On Wild Bill Hickok being killed off in Episode 4] It wasn't like I didn't expect that was going to happen. It was always the original design. I would have loved to have been there longer. I would have loved to have seen his brief moment there in Deadwood played out with a little more detail and take a little more time to look at him before them getting rid of him. There was actually some discussion, at one point early on, about whether they were going to keep Hickok around for longer. I was not directly involved in any of those conversations. At one point, Milch called me up. It was after HBO had seen the pilot. He said, "Well, the good news is they love the show, and they're going to produce it. We're going to do it. The bad news is that they don't want me to kill Hickok." I thought, "Oh, well. Gee." I didn't say, "That's great news for me." I think what I did say was, "Listen, I'll be there as long as you want me." Somewhere between then and when the show actually went into production, they made their decision that they were going to stick to their original design, which was that Hickok wasn't going to be there very long.
In retrospect, yeah, it was frustrating. I hated being killed off of that show, because it was such a fun role. The upside is, I didn't hang around long enough for anyone to get tired of me.
Geri Jewell: It was such a shame when they pulled it, because at the end of the third season, Milch was developing my character to run my own kitchen at the Gem. He was going to expand my role. It hurt badly.
Kim Dickens: I adore Dayton Callie and have such fondness for that that storyline between Joanie Stubbs and Charlie Utter. It's so tenderhearted. They really should have ended up together. I would always say, "He's kind of my future boyfriend." There's a moment when [they] hold hands [in "I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For"], they sit outside, and were holding hands. It was so sweet. They were so sweet together... the vulnerability between the two characters is just breathtaking. They were unlikely companions, just there to talk to each other.
Keith Carradine: The scene sitting on the bed with Charlie Utter, when basically I tell him, "Let me go to Hell the way I want to." There was poetry in that.
Brad Dourif: [On Doc and Jewel's dance in the Season 1 finale] It is because of what's happened before that... the preacher was such an innocent, and such a beautiful man. He was almost a saint. I think there's just two people saving each other. I think Doc Cochran was devastated by that, by having to watch this guy completely fall apart, and then really almost asking Swearengen to kill him. I think the dance was really, "I'm OK. I'm going to go on." That was clinging to life.
Geri Jewell: [On the dance scene with Doc and Jewel] Everywhere I go, people would tell me that was their favorite scene in the whole series. It was a precious scene. It turned the table. You would think that the non-disabled person would be teaching the disabled person how to dance, but it was really the other way around.
[On the hint of romance between Doc and Jewel] Yes, there was. Of course it could have [happened]. Why it didn't is anybody's guess. I don't know where Milch was going to take it; he may have just changed his mind. He may have started it and then changed his mind, because he didn't pick it up after the dance scene.
Watch the scene of Doc and Jewel dancing:
What Was So Special About "Deadwood"?
Timothy Olyphant: This was the first time I got a job where I prepared for the success rather than the failure of a show. I knew there was something special. It's one thing if something is heady and smart, complicated and dense, but there was something with ["Deadwood"] that just appealed to a broad audience, because it was not too different to any great drama; it had tension and a great cast of characters. When Swearengen and Bullock aren't on the screen, you don't really miss them, because all these other strong characters are making the show. I find when Brad Dourif is on the screen, I think the show is about him; when Bill Sanderson is there, I think it's about him. That's rare in any show.
Garret Dillahunt: When you get something like that, you just want to focus. Everybody comes to work focused. People hung out at "Deadwood." People came to work when they weren't called. You just wanted to be there because something special was happening. What made it special might have killed it, ultimately. I don't know. I would be guessing. We took 21 days to finish an episode one time. No network can stomach that. We made sure it was right. The crew was like Spartan f--king warriors slogging through red mud with all this equipment. I'm sure [everyone] could have made more money on a network show or something, but everyone was proud. They were really proud of what they were doing. I felt in such good hands and in good company there. When there's this mix of people who are like-minded in their goal, something spectacular happens.
I think everything's an ensemble piece, whatever anyone else says. "Deadwood" made me want to equal that experience as often as I could. It's more in your control than you might think. You're not going to run into someone that can do dialogue like David Milch that often. But you can behave on a set in the same way. It's something I always look for and it's always been my favorite experiences... "No Country for Old Men," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," these movies that I've done that had that same feeling of collaboration. It's collaboration, not cooperation even. We're working together; it doesn't mean it's painless. It doesn't mean there aren't arguments. I'm not talking about a commune. I just mean everyone is here for one purpose, to tell this story, this particular story, as well as we can. That was certainly true on "Deadwood," from my perspective anyway.
Keith Carradine: What Milch did there, and what everyone involved did there, will stand for years as something that's really extraordinary. It was American Western Shakespeare, what he created, in terms of the sheer emotional size of the life. The characters were so complex, so vivid, and so not black-and-white. There was so much nuance to life therein and to the complexities of the morality of that place, or the lack thereof. There's a lot of television being done now that I think ramps directly from that, in terms of that moral complexity, the fact that people and the choices [they] make [are] complicated. The good guys and the bad guys are not clear-cut. They never have been, despite the fact that we once tried to present things in that way. It's more complicated than that. Life is more complicated than that. There's stuff that's being done now on American television that has benefited greatly from the ground that was broken by Milch and company on that show.
W. Earl Brown: It still happens, not as much to a degree now that I'm clean-shaven with short hair, but people stopping, and people that would stop you would want to talk about the show, or would have specific questions about the show. It wasn't something you could passively watch. It was an immersive experience, watching it, and you did not have to have a degree in comparative literature to get it. My best friend growing up was a truck driver, and it was big in truck stops. He'd have his "Deadwood" DVDs and they'd watch them in the lounge. But if you had that degree in comparative literature, you could get all of the allusions and stuff that are buried in it. There are still new things [when I watch it], that I'm like, "Oh, s--t, I didn't see it that way." There's such depth to it that it really... it's the television equivalent of "Huck Finn," the great American novel. It's the great American TV show.
How Did "Deadwood" Impact Your Career or How You Approach Your Career?
Garret Dillahunt: [Francis Wolcott] was a much more complex character. It was also, for me, a real turning point, because I had never, to that point, played anyone who — I don't come from money. I didn't even own a suit at the time. I just felt like a liar every time I would wear a suit. It's like, "No one's going to buy this." I had this thing in my head that I couldn't play someone, believably, who was comfortable around money. The fact that he was so together and wore a tie and a cravat, it changed, it opened a whole other [area]... Because of course I could play that; it was stupid fear. But I was younger and you think things like that, like, "Well, I'm blue-collar, and no one's going to buy me as a blah, blah, blah."
Paula Malcomson: We all kind of romanticize the show. I'm sure people get tired of us talking about it, but it really was one of those things that you never forget. It was the first time for me that somebody had given me a job like that, and really sat up and paid attention to who I was as an actor and a human being.
W. Earl Brown: When "Deadwood" ended, I thought, "I'll never have this again, ever." I did a pilot that HBO should have picked up called "1%." It was an outlaw biker show, and FX scared them off it with "Sons of Anarchy." "1%" was extraordinary. As we were shooting it, there were moments... I remember we were shooting this scene, riding down a street at night, a group of us, Donal Logue, Abe Benrubi, James Le Gros, Timm Sharp, and me... as we're shooting that scene, I had that same sort of moment, "Oh my God, we're doing something good, and we're bonded." I know it is possible that at some point, I may again ascend to the heights that "Deadwood" reached. I know it's possible. I haven't been there yet.
A Little Something Extra
Keith Carradine: [On guest starring on "Raising Hope" with "Deadwood" co-star Garret Dillahunt] Garret's such a good actor. There was a happy irony to that. The last time we were on screen together, he did away with me. This time, I almost did away with him.
W. Earl Brown in 'Deadwood'
W. Earl Brown in 'Deadwood'
Truth be told, David rewrote us all. What you did as a writer was, you would pitch him ideas, either something from history or some fictional flight of fancy you'd had. "Yeah, that's got promise. Develop an arc on that idea and do three scenes. See what you come up with." You would go away. You would do it. He would read it. Sometimes he'd go, "No, that's s--t. What else do you got?" Or, "Oh, this has got promise. I'll tell you what. Take this, and we've got that Bullock and Nuttal storyline. That scene when he goes down to Nuttal's. Why don't you see if you can weave that into that line?" Then David would rewrite it. Everybody on staff wrote on every episode, but we all got rewritten. Ted Mann was the closest, because they had a long history, and Ted's a brilliant mind, too. Ted was the closest. David laid hands off of, not entirely, but Ted's writing pretty much stayed intact. But with everybody else... a lot of people were there, young writers, just starting in their careers. And that's the greatest boot camp you could ever go to.
If a "Deadwood" Movie Ever Did Happen, Would You Be Willing to Sign On?
Ian McShane: Well, you never know with that. Never say never with something like that. It was such a great experience. The best ever. I mean, three years of maybe the finest show ever on television. Everybody talks about "The Wire" and whatever. I've watched all of them, and I just think "Deadwood" has something the others didn't. It concentrated on the town. It was as big a character as anybody in it. David Milch, who created it and who I love dearly, he still wants to do it. I guess it will come down to if it's feasible. It was a hugely expensive show. That was the reason why it was taken off. It wasn't just HBO involved, it was Paramount TV and David and the contracts. There was a load of stuff that went down. But he would love to see it come back. He would like to do two two-hour movies to finish it off.
Brad Dourif: Of course. Of course. Of course. It won't, but of course. It can't. It's an impossibility. No, it's an impossibility; it won't happen.
Geri Jewell: Oh, are you kidding? I would do anything to be reunited with that cast and with the whole crew. There wasn't anybody on that set who wasn't wonderful. I would go back to "Deadwood" in a heartbeat.
Kim Dickens: I finally came to a point where I realized it's probably not going to happen. Every year it would start to percolate, the discussions about it, the mentionings of it... I let that go. Who knows? I was with Paula Malcomson, and ["Deadwood" writers] Elizabeth Sarnoff and Regina Corrado the other night, we were all seeing a play together, and everybody started talking about it. Paula and I both said, "Oh, I think everybody would go back to finish it. We'd find a way."
W. Earl Brown: I do think there is still an audience for it, just judging by, when people bring it up, they are fervent about the show, and still want to know about it. But two years ago, if you had asked me if the movies would happen, I'd have said, "Yup, we're going to get a movie made." Now, I don't think that'll ever happen.
Robin Weigert and Dayton Callie in 'Deadwood'
Robin Weigert and Dayton Callie in 'Deadwood'