Old School Americana & Nostalgia


How the Western Classic ‘Lonesome Dove’ Began as a John Wayne Film

How the Western Classic ‘Lonesome Dove’ Began as a John Wayne Film

John Wayne helped define the Western genre, so it should come as no surprise that Lonesome Dove began as a movie vehicle for the Duke. Lonesome Dove is an epic Western saga following two seasoned Texas Rangers on a transformative cattle drive from the Mexican border to the Canadian border in Montana. Of course, the 1985 Larry McMurtry novel eventually became a sprawling TV miniseries. The TV version starred Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and has generations of fans.

However, the novel sprang forth from a screenplay McMurtry wrote in the 70s with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. In 1971, Bogdanovich scored directing an adaptation of McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show. He enlisted McMurtry to help him pen a script for a Western film for him to direct.

The initial concepts were broad, aiming for a journey that went beyond herding cattle. Bogdanovich envisioned incorporating Irish folk singers and settled on the title “Streets of Laredo”. However, the cast the duo envisioned was the real hook of the film.

How ‘Lonesome Dove’ Was Written For John Wayne

According to Texas Monthly, Bogdanovich wanted Western film icons John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda, along with a role for his then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd. As McMurtry and Bogdanovich worked on the script, the characters developed based on these actors and their distinct personalities.

Stewart’s character, named Augustus, had a light-hearted and grounded essence. Henry Fonda’s character, Jake Spoon (later played by Robert Urich), emerged as morally ambiguous, with uncertain loyalties. John Wayne’s Woodrow embodied the commanding and stoic frontiersman. Cybill Shepherd may have portrayed a variation of Lorena Wood, the young blonde prostitute.

Despite the pedigree of Bogdanovich and McMurtry after The Last Picture Show, Streets of Laredo was initially rejected by Wayne, Stewart, and Fonda. However, there might be a valid reason for its resounding rejection. The storyline of Streets of Laredo primarily revolves around the characters’ getting old.

In the early 70s, Wayne continued to work consistently as a leading man, keeping the spirit of traditional Western films alive. Notably, this seasoned actor had recently received an Academy Award for his performance in True Grit just a few years prior. The revisionist Western McMurtry and Bogdanovich had in mind didn’t appeal to him.

However, even the mini-series hit a casting switch up. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall playing Cal and Gus. Yet producers initially wanted Charles Bronson and James Garner, but Bronson declined and Garner had to withdraw due to health concerns. Additionally, Duvall was cast as the serious Cal, but at his wife’s suggestion, he proposed switching roles, bringing his depth to Gus’s wit.