The 'Rio Diablo' Trail : THE WESTERN LANGUISHED FOR 12 YEARS ... THEN KENNY ROGERS CAME ALONG

Joanne Harrison is a Houston-based playwright who has written frequently for The Times

The chicken wrangler is whistling frantically for his charges, who are busy ignoring him and pecking at some overripe zucchini near the front door of Pepper's Perch saloon.

Semi-retired country music star Naomi Judd materializes from her trailer. Surely, somewhere in there she has a Dorian Gray-like picture that's aging for her, because, at 47, her face in the afternoon sun appears unlined and porcelain perfect. Judd sweeps by in a burnt-sienna Western gown, followed by her corps of personal assistants, all tiptoeing delicately around calling cards left by the "atmosphere goats."

This is the set of "Rio Diablo," Kenny Rogers' new CBS movie--and for a change he's not playing the Gambler. Instead, he's bounty hunter Quinton Leech, who's mentor (of a sort) to Benjamin Tabor, a young gun played by country singer Travis Tritt in his film debut. Naomi Judd co-stars as Flora Mae Pepper, a kind of glamorous Miss Kitty.

Here in the southernmost depths of the Lone Star state, the Rio Grande and the Mexican border are just down the road a piece. There's nothing much else for miles in any direction. Unlike the glittering cities and swampy coastal plain, this is the part of Texas that looks like Texas. Here, the dust, the dung and the doggies are real--even if the Alamo complex, where much of "Rio Diablo's" action is being filmed, isn't.

Crew members from Los Angeles say they're happy to be working at the real Alamo--by that they mean the life-sized adobe-set built for the 1960 John Wayne epic "The Alamo." It's unclear if they realize that the "really real" Alamo is some 3 1/2 hard-driving hours north and east in San Antonio and that that's where the Texans fought for their independence with Mexican general Santa Ana.

This Alamo, which together with its surrounding vintage village, has served as a backdrop for any number of period films, was the brainchild of a local rancher and entrepreneur manque named Happy Shahan. When the Army (and its payroll) left the area to the uncertain mercies of cattle prices, he sold Hollywood on the idea of filming authentic-looking Westerns in the authentic-looking West. That's one of the reasons Rogers and the rest of the "Rio Diablo" crew is here: for authenticity.

"Out here we really are hot, sweaty and dusty," says executive producer Ken Kragen, who is also Rogers' manager. "You can't capture that on a lot in L.A." Probably not. It's so dusty inside the cantina where a card game scene is filming that the script supervisor wears an operating-room mask.

"We went to the other places where you can make a film like this," says producer Kelly Junkermann. "Obviously there's L.A., Tucson, Santa Fe

Rogers agrees. "Filming on location kind of sets the tone. There's something about being out here playing a role in the hot, hot sun that's supposed to be happening in the hot, hot sun. And when you talk about Del Rio, it really is about 30 miles from here ... I think there's such a thing as geographic consciousness."

Writer Frank Q. Dobbs, a genuine Texan as is Rogers, built his story on the landscape and the character details. But the time wasn't right for Westerns.

"This script has been around for 12 years," marvels producer Kelly Junkermann. Twelve years! Frank Dobbs and (co-writer) Dave Cass go all the way back. Dave was Kenny Rogers' stunt double in the original 'Gambler,' and they gave me this script during the filming of the last 'Gambler." There was an option on it, but that option came up about eight weeks ago. We had a one-week window to make it, so we took it to NBC, but they passed.

"Then we took it to CBS. They read it that day and said, 'We want to make this picture.' It just doesn't happen like that, does it? But that meant it was a real rush because we only had six weeks to prepare to do this. And it was even more complicated because Kenny's always on tour. In fact, he and Travis both go out every weekend and tour."

The project involves true dedication. The nearest large airport is in San Antonio, more than 150 miles of driving, most of it on two-lane highway splattered with armadillo road kills, to the northeast.

"Knowing all this, CBS still took a chance," says Junkermann. "Kenny'd been there a long time. They'd lost to NBC on the last 'Gambler' and the last 'Gambler'd' done great. So this time they said: 'Yeah, we'll take Kenny Rogers in this Western.' And then, (Clint Eastwood's) 'Unforgiven' came out! In a way, I feel sorry for Frank Dobbs because this could have been a feature; the script was excellent. This is a real Western. It's dirt and it's grit and it's good guy, bad guy.

In this case, the good guy and the bad guy might well be the same person--the lead character, Quinton Leech.

"This guy doesn't rape and pillage and slit throats," explains Rogers, who plays Leech. "But he is a bounty hunter and a man living at a very volatile time in history. Those guys were not nice. They went out with a purpose and did whatever they had to do to accomplish that purpose. Then they justified it by saying that the people they killed were people that needed to be killed."

Director Rod Hardy, an Aussie accustomed to shooting on location in the outback, says: "Kenny is real professional. His character is not like anything he's played before. Quinton Leech is not a nice bloke, as we'd say in Australia. So he's really being pushed and doing it very well."

"The violence is a lot more direct in this film," says Rogers. "It's a lot more specific. But maybe the biggest difference between Quinton Leech and the Gambler character, Brady Hawks, is that Brady couldn't hit first and Quinton can. That's the key. His job is to go out and bring these guys in. If one can bring them in alive, so much the better because they smell better if they're alive, but he's not above killing them and dragging them cross-country on horseback. Quinton Leech is a lot more colorful character and a kind of a step out for me in acting.

"There was good news and bad news about the Gambler character when I started. The bad news was: He was pretty one-dimensional. The good news was: So was I as an actor. Now, we've found a character where I can be a little crazier, a little more explosive and it's fun for me."

Producer Kelly Junkerman agrees. "I've done a lot of different projects with Kenny Rogers in the last 12 years, but this is the most exciting one because it really gives him a challenge. It really challenges him to play a different type of character. Really, Kenny is the 'Gambler.' But in this one, he's really rising to a challenge."

"That's the way Kenny is," says manager Kragen. "You know, every time he goes into the studio and does a duet with someone who's really good, he goes up a level because of the competition. And, you know, seeing dailies, he's doing the same thing here. This really is Kenny's best acting ever. After a few days I actually said, 'This is potentially your 'Shootist.' You know that was the movie everybody said of John Wayne: 'Gee, he's not just making commercial movies, he can act.' "

Travis Tritt is beginning to love acting as well. "I've always loved Western movies," he says. "John Wayne, 'Gunsmoke.' Two or three years ago, when I saw 'Young Guns'--my career was just starting--but I saw those movies and I thought, 'God, I'd love to be one of those guys,' you know? So this is really a thrill for me to get to do something that I fantasized of doing as a kid. It's good to see Westerns starting to come back.

Rogers, too, sees the Western coming back into favor. "Of course, we were talking to CBS long before Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' came out, so that isn't what made them give the go-ahead," he says. "But the success of 'Unforgiven' probably is making them salivate."

Rogers has a theory: "Every 10 years, historically, country music becomes the dominant force in music and, thanks to Garth Brooks, that's happening again.

"And whenever that happens, people become a lot more aware of Western things in general. There is a synergy between music, clothing, and movies. At a certain point it becomes trendy. For example, I thought 'Silverado' was a great movie. I thought it was out of sync with the music.

"These days, if a Western blew through the roof like the 'Gambler' did originally, there'd be a lot more Westerns on televisions."

Down near Del Rio, Tex., a lot of people are hoping that that's just what'll happen when "Rio Diablo" airs.

"Rio Diablo" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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