Why Robert Duvall Says Iconic Western ‘Lonesome Dove’ Is Like ‘Religion’ in Texas

by Lauren Boisvert
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Imagine it’s 1989; George H.W. Bush is sworn in as president, MGM Studios opens in Florida, and the Western genre is dead. Then, from out of the dust, comes a television miniseries that garners so much attention as to revive the Western genre for generations to come; and it’s called Lonesome Dove.

Based on the 1985 novel by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove was a six-hour, four-part limited series that aired on CBS; it followed two former Texas Rangers as they lived and worked on a livery in Lonesome Dove, Texas with two other former Rangers, Joshua Deets, and Pea Eye Parker, along with Bolivar, their cook.

After turning 90 in January, Robert Duvall spoke to Here & Now on WBUR in April about his most famous roles, which included Gus McCrae on Lonesome Dove; Duvall played the former Texas Ranger in 1989 alongside Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow F. Call.

Robert Duvall on ‘Lonesome Dove’ Impact in Texas

Being about former Texas Rangers, it’s believable that Lonesome Dove has a huge following in Texas. But, as Duvall describes to Here & Now, the Lonestar State’s love of the series goes beyond just being fans. “In Texas, it’s like a religion,” said Duvall. He then shared an anecdote, saying, “My good friend Hank Whitman, who was the head of the Texas Rangers, made me an honorary Texan, an honorary Texas Ranger. And a woman came up that day and said, ‘we watch Lonesome Dove once a year, every year in our Texas family.’ And she said, ‘I would not allow my daughter’s fiancé to marry into the family until he had seen Lonesome Dove.

Robert Duvall told Here & Now that Gus McCrae was “his favorite part to play.” He spoke about doing everything in the series and in his films himself, saying “I do my own horsemanship, my own singing and my own dancing in a movie. It’s me that has to do that.”

His part as Gus McCrae directly juxtaposed Tommy Lee Jones’s character Woodrow F. Call; McCrae was the “upbeat womanizer” to Call’s “strict, stoic workaholic” personality. Initially, Duvall was on deck to play Call, but his then-wife Gail Youngs convinced him to play McCrae instead. Duvall read the book, and decided he had played too many characters like Call; he wanted something different.

A Pioneer of the Western Revival

According to a New York Times review, Lonesome Dove “revitalized both the miniseries and Western genres, both of which had been considered dead for several years.” Lonesome Dove was nominated for 18 Emmy awards, and took home 7; it was also considered Program of the Year by the National Television Critics Association. Because of the series, CBS was awarded a Peabody for Outstanding Achievement in Drama.

After Larry McMurtry’s death this past March, sales of the Lonesome Dove novel skyrocketed; it landed on the Top 100 Books list on Amazon, eventually climbing to #1 in Westerns.

Clearly, there’s a special place in the hearts of Texans for Lonesome Dove; it reintroduced the Western drama in a time where cowboys, ranchers, and rangers just weren’t wanted anymore. For that, we graciously tip our hats.

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