Enamored of such cutting-edge programs as Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black, many critics and TV fans claim we are living in the golden age of television. While this may be true, one of the best, most binge-worthy TV events of all time, Lonesome Dove, occurred more than two-and-a-half decades ago.
The epic Western miniseries, which debuted on CBS over four nights in February 1989, is the subject of two new exhibits in Fort Worth — “Bullets and Bustles: Costumes of Lonesome Dove” at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, and “Photographs From Lonesome Dove” by Bill Wittliff at the Cattle Raisers Museum.
Both exhibits run through April 17, and each is part of a six-month “Lonesome Dove Trail” celebration (seven events in Fort Worth, one in Albany), which includes art exhibitions, screenings at Sundance Square, panel discussions with the cast and crew, and a glittering sold-out gala next month.
Lonesome Dove’s plot revolves around former Texas Rangers Capt. Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones), who, accompanied by townsfolk, go on a dangerous, adventure-filled cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana territory.
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“It’s a cult classic that has a true Western storyline,” said Tara Trask, public program director for the National Cowgirl Museum. “It appeals to audiences because it speaks to real life. I had never seen my dad cry until I watched it with him.”
The critically acclaimed adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was filmed over 16 weeks at three locations, including scorching hot Alamo Village near Brackettville, and freezing rain- and snow-drenched Angel Fire, N.M.
Shooting Lonesome Dove was a grueling experience for most everyone involved, including Emmy-winning costume designer Van Ramsey, whose work is featured in the “Bullets and Bustles” exhibit. On display are costumes worn by Duvall and Jones, as well as co-stars Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover.
“Lonesome Dove is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Ramsey. “I just wanted it to end. Nothing about it was fun or funny. I would go home each night after the shoot and just want to cry.”
Prior to Lonesome Dove, Ramsey had never done a Western, nor had he ever worked in the fast-paced world of television — he had only done plays and films, he said.
“The actors worked 12 to 13 hours per day,” Ramsey said. “We costumers worked 19- to 20-hour days. The costumes filled five semi-truck trailers.”
Ramsey’s team consisted of 12 people making the costumes, two dyeing them and two aging them to give them a sense of verisimilitude. Ramsey was given only five days to sketch the outfits, and he and his team shopped for the fabric themselves. The women’s costumes, which were bulky and warm, were easily the most labor intensive, he said.
“It took 22 yards of fabric to make just one dress,” Ramsey said. “We had to make the corset and underwear before we could fit the actual garment. The women had to stand there for hours while we did the fitting. ”
Anjelica Huston, the most famous of the female cast members, worked just the last three weeks of the four-month shoot. She arrived on the set fresh and chipper, which irritated Ramsey to no end, he recalled.
“I wanted to slap her,” Ramsey said, laughing. “She was in such a great mood. Meanwhile, we had been through storms and heat waves and everything else.”
Yet he remains friends with Huston to this day, as he is with all the cast members, he said. He admired the rugged and capable Jones, who told producers, “I’m a fifth-generation Texan; I can do my own stunts,” as well as the great Duvall, whom Ramsey called “the most brilliant actor I ever worked with.”
“We couldn’t have done it without the passion of Robert Duvall,” Ramsey said. “Or without Bill Wittliff.”
Born in Taft, in South Texas, Lonesome Dove screenwriter Wittliff studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He was also a business and production manager for the Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas.
In addition to working on Lonesome Dove, Wittliff co-wrote the screenplays for such films as Honeysuckle Rose (1980) and Legends of the Fall (1994).
During the filming of Lonesome Dove, Wittliff was a fixture on the set, going far above and beyond the role of a typical screenwriter. In addition to penning an Emmy-nominated script, he took thousands of photos during the shooting of the film, documenting the production process in exhaustive fashion.
He published many of them in a tome called A Book of Photographs From Lonesome Dove (2007, The University of Texas Press), which features a foreword by McMurtry.
Sixteen of Wittliff’s photos, including stark, beautifully composed sepia-toned shots of Duvall, Jones and Huston, make up the fittingly titled “Photographs From Lonesome Dove by Bill Wittliff” display at the Cattle Raisers Museum, which is inside the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
“Each photograph Bill Wittliff took is a work of art,” said Cattle Raisers Museum Executive Director Pat Riley. “As a whole exhibition, the photos provide a grand summary of the entire miniseries. Lonesome Dove fans won’t want to miss this opportunity to see these photos as a part of Fort Worth’s celebration of the Lonesome Dove Trail.”
Bullets and Bustles: Costumes of Lonesome Dove
- Through April 17
- National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
- 1720 Gendy St., Fort Worth
- 817-336- 4475; www.cowgirl.net
- Free with admission ($8-$10)
Photographs From Lonesome Dove by Bill Wittliff