What are some interesting facts about the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove?

The epic Western miniseries Lonesome Dove was a smash hit with both audiences and critics alike when it debuted on CBS in 1989. Here’s a collection of interesting facts about this legendary production.

Tommy Lee rides for real. Tommy Lee Jones, who portrayed Woodrow F. Call, owns a ranch in Texas, breeding horses and cattle, so he completely refused to use a stunt double for any of the riding scenes.

Speaking of real riding scenes, the producers decided to use real ranch horses in the miniseries. When the effect of bullets hit below Gus McCrae’s horse, the response was genuine, and Robert Duvall was really bucked off! Because it lent itself to the authenticity everyone desired, the cameras continued rolling, and the shot was kept in the final cut.

Original plans. Written first by Larry McMurtry in 1971 as the script to a feature film, Lonesome Dove was penned with other stars in mind than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. McMurtry intended for John Wayne to play Woodrow Call, James Stewart to play Gus McCrae, and Henry Fonda to play Jake Spoon, with Peter Bogdanovich at the helm as director. Wayne turned down the project, which caused the idea to be shelved for the next decade. Eventually, McMurtry bought the script back, and wrote the book (on which the 1989 mini-series was based).

Studios turned down the idea of a miniseries initially. In 1985, producer Suzanne De Passe bought the rights to McMurtry’s unpublished novel for $50,000, with the idea of releasing a companion miniseries alongside the book. Unfortunately, De Passe was turned down by every major network in America. But after the novel was published and became such a massive success, including winning the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, all of the networks that had turned her down contacted her quickly to try to persuade her to make the miniseries on their network. There was a brief period of time after the novel won the Pulitzer when screenwriter John Milius and director John Huston were attempting to adapt the story into a feature film, but network CBS agreed to a deal with Suzanne De Passe on the miniseries idea. John Huston still had a personal stake in the production though, as daughter Anjelica Huston was cast in the role of Clara Allen.

Role Reversal. Originally, Tommy Lee Jones was to play Gus, and Robert Duvall to play Call, but after Duvall actually read the book, he decided he would much rather play Gus, and the roles were switched.

Speaking of role changes, there were several sequels to the series that recast the iconic roles. Two sequels, Return to Lonesome Dove (1993), and Streets of Laredo (1995) were produced to continue the story, and were followed by prequels to the original, titled Dead Man’s Walk (1996), and Comanche Moon (2008). All of these were based on additions to the novel series by McMurtry, except for the first sequel, Return to Lonesome Dove. According to rumors, McMurtry was actually unhappy with CBS crediting his involvement, as he had nothing to do with the production. The Streets of Laredo miniseries that aired two years later and was actually an adaptation of his writing ignored the events of Return to Lonesome Dove.

Real Life Inspirations. Woodrow Call’s final line, “A hell of a vision,” was taken from J. Frank Dobie’s book Cow People and is a quote the author attributed to real life Texas cattle baron Charles Goodnight, who was the inspiration for Call’s character. Goodnight’s cattle-driving partner Oliver Loving was the inspiration for Robert Duvall’s character, Gus McCrae. Similar to McCrae in the story, Loving died of blood poisoning after being wounded by arrows. Goodnight carried his friend’s body back to Texas for a proper burial, just like Call does for Gus. Charles Goodnight was even featured in a small scene as a character in McMurtry’s novel.

The Wittliff Collection. As a part of screenwriter Bill Wittliff’s donation to the library at Texas State University San Marcos, many of the costumes and props are on public display as part of “The Wittliff Collection.” Fans can see items from the show that include Gus McCrae’s outfit and Colt Walker 1847 revolver.

St. Elmo’s Fire. During the storm that hits early into the cattle drive, the herd of cows are struck by lightning, which is then conducted from cow to cow through the tips of their horns. This is a real phenomenon, known as “St. Elmo’s Fire”.