McRaney's Hearst Attempts a 'Deadwood' Takeover

Things are never boring in the complex, profane Western world of "Deadwood," especially where money is concerned.

After weeks of what looked like public negotiating among series creator David Milch, studio Paramount and HBO -- for a while, it look like the series would end after the current, third season, which premiered on June 11 -- "Deadwood" will now finish off its run with a pair of two-hour specials.

This parley seems appropriate for a series about a lawless gold-mining camp in 1870s South Dakota trying to steer through a treacherous minefield on its way to becoming a real town.

At the center of this is mining magnate George Hearst, played by Gerald McRaney ("Major Dad," "Simon & Simon"), star of the upcoming CBS drama "Jericho."

After being talked about in hushed tones all through season two, Hearst -- called the "Boy the Earth Talks To" by the Indians because of his uncanny ability to nose out buried "color," or gold -- arrived in the final episode of the year, eager to acquire as many gold strikes as possible.

Hearst seemed relatively civilized at first, but as this week's episode reveals, his obsession with the "color" overcomes all the better angels of his nature.

"Hearst is busy acquiring property," McRaney says. "[Murders] fall under the auspices of acquiring real estate. The man doesn't kill just for the joy of it. It is pleasant, mind you."

Some of these murders come about through Hearst's disputes with Cornish miners, who have the unfortunate desire to organize.

"Well," McRaney says, "if they act up, you kill a bunch of them, and the rest fall in line."

"Deadwood" is a mix of historical and fictional characters, but even the ones based on fact are also filtered through Milch's imagination. However, much about Hearst is true, even if McRaney's beard falls a bit short of the real man's ZZ Top-style whiskers.

Hearst did indeed amass a staggering fortune through his skill as a gold-seeking missile. He later made an unsuccessful bid for California governor in 1882, and even later a successful bid to be senator from the state, a post he held until his death in 1891. But along the way, he hardly kept his family -- including son and eventual publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst -- in the lap of luxury.

"I told David," McRaney says, "that my approach to Hearst was not so much that he disliked people or was even particularly brutal to people. He just viewed people as another piece of mining equipment, and he pretty much included himself in that. In the 1870s, on one deal, he made a profit of $50 million, which he then turned around and invested in another deal, that and more cash.

"But there was no cash flow in the Hearst family. His wife and son were out on the street. But he needed the money for this other deal, so he didn't matter, and his wife and son didn't matter. That was his attitude. It was just, 'We've got to get the color out of the ground.'"

The new season also brings adjustments in Hearst's relationship with such local luminaries as saloonkeeper-pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and hardware merchant-sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).

"As long as they can be exploited," McRaney says, "it's a very good relationship. But since they seem to have some problem with that, I'm afraid it's going to turn out badly."

Shortly after Hearst begins to throw his weight around, Swearengen gets an ally of sorts in the person of old acquaintance and theater entrepreneur Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox). Arriving in next week's episode, he eventually puts on shows in a former brothel, which is now temporarily in use as a schoolhouse.

The need for a schoolhouse is representative of Deadwood's growth, which is reflected in the show's elaborate sets at Gene Autry's Melody Ranch in Valencia, Calif. From a few buildings and a lot of tents fronting a muddy thoroughfare, the sets have expanded to include houses (including a fieldstone-trimmed Victorian for mining heiress Alma Garrett Ellsworth, played by Molly Parker), more businesses and a park complete with grass and stumps for benches. There are even flower gardens here and there.

Deadwood is evolving from a rough mining camp into a proper town, complete with civil elections (it's no surprise that the process uses as many bullets as ballots).

As to what he thinks this season's theme is, McRaney says, "It's how, even with this collection of psychotics that wound up coming to Deadwood, where there was no law, they have a need to establish some sort of order. Even the pimps and the saloonkeepers and the cutthroats -- they need some kind of order. Life just won't work in absolute chaos."

From playing Hearst, McRaney also believes he's learned something, or, more accurately, "relearned perhaps, and made it come home more precisely, that absolute control corrupts absolutely. That much power concentrated in one person is a bad thing.

"Did you know that Sheriff Bullock and Teddy Roosevelt were chums in real life? I find it fascinating that Bullock is going up against Hearst, a robber baron, and his buddy Teddy Roosevelt is remembered for taking apart the monopolies, the trusts."

But giving more power to Bullock may not be a uniformly good idea. Says McRaney, "He has that streak of great humanitarianism that can't help but get him in trouble. All the idiotic things he does, he does for the best of reasons, but it's going to stir up more trouble than it will fix."

In the end, though, McRaney says, "Hearst basically is lined up against, at one point or another, everyone in town, and still winds up doing what he came to town to do."

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World