Roots is probably the most influential miniseries in television history. But I think you can make the case that the best miniseries ever was Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It received an amazing eighteen Emmy awardnominations, and won seven.
The casting of this series was inspired, beginning with Robert Duvall (Great American Things, August 21, 2009) and Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas Rangers who decide to take a herd of cattle to Montana. Neither of those two actors seems to ever make a false move, they’re entirely believable in whatever role they undertake. And they were flawless here. They were both nominated for Emmys, as were supporting characters Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, and Glenne Headly. Others who made this one of the best casts ever include Rick Schroder, Robert Urich, and Chris Cooper.
In a recent interview, Robert Duvall said the part of Augustus McCrae was his favorite of all he’s had throughout his illustrious career. “I don’t mind doing television,” Duvall said. “Some people don’t do it, but Lonesome Dove was my favorite part ever…You know, it was fun. My ex-wife said don’t let them, they were trying to talk me into playing the other part, and I wanted this part, you know, because it was more like certain aspects of me that people didn’t know. But it was just fun to play, and when I look back on it, it makes me feel good. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. You know, it’s like let the English play Hamlet and King Lear. I’ll play Augustus McCrae.”
Interestingly, McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove as a screenplay first. He intended for John Wayne to play McCrae, Jimmy Stewart (Great American Things, April 8, 2009) as Call, and Henry Fonda (Great American Things, February 1, 2010) as Jake Spoon. Wayne turned it down, and it was ten years later that the novel received publication.
It may have been a “miniseries,” but that’s all that was mini about it. Consider that the series had 89 speaking parts, 1000 extras, 30 wranglers, 100 horses, 90 crew and 1400 cattle. That’s as big as the West, which was barely big enough to capture the epic that we appreciate today as Lonesome Dove.