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Geronimo Reconsidered : TNT MOVIE REPLACES THE MYTH WITH A REAL PERSON

Joanne Harrison is a free-lance writer based in Texas

The wind is picking up, but it brings no relief. Dust devils--tiny tornadoes--dance across the desert floor and disappear among the pinon and the cactus. Carrion birds circle, hopefully, in the middle distance.

Here on the set of “Geronimo,” a movie made for TNT, it’s over 120 degrees, a record even for the exurbs of Tucson, Ariz., in August.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 19, 1993 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 19, 1993 Home Edition TV Times Page 7 Television Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Ryan Black, who plays the young Geronimo in the TNT movie “Geronimo,” was misidentified in a caption in the Dec. 5 issue of TV Times.

On a parched dirt road inside the Lazy K Bar ranch, the Northwest Fire District paramedics are sitting in the shadow of their truck waiting for the next extra to collapse with heatstroke. They’ve had a fair amount of business already and it’s still well before noon. A couple of black plastic tubs the size of kiddie pools stand ready for emergency dunkings and a blue-and-white striped plastic canopy shades one prone woman who’s already out for the count.

Just up the rocky embankment, dozens of extras, Native American men, women and kids dressed in heavy winter buckskins, are tending smoky myrrh-enhanced campfires while nearby historical re-enactors playing the Mexican army (in full, navy-blue wool uniforms) prepare to invade the camp. The scene is crucial and small things keep going wrong. An atmosphere dog limps off, yelping--a thorn in its paw. The army cannot wheel around properly because of the cactus. Kid extras have to be taken on bathroom breaks.

And it just keeps getting hotter.

Kimberly Norris doesn’t care. For the young actress this is more than just a big break; it’s a very special experience. She sits in the shade created by a traditional wickiup. With the breeze coming through the woven branches, the circular hut is surprisingly cool.

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“I’m sure that for all involved, this is more than just a job, it’s a spiritual endeavor,” says Norris, a descendant of Chief Seattle. Norris plays Geronimo’s second wife.

“It’s an effort to reach back into our history, and to understand what happened, why it happened, to regain some of the humanity that history--at least history in the form that it’s taught--has taken away from us.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here with this story. We want to show people that we fell in love; we were heartbroken; we loved and lost; we whined and complained every once in a while--and that there are eternal truths that exist in all societies. Indian people are just human beings. So we’re here setting some falsehoods straight.”

Among them is the image of Geronimo, the Apache war chief, as nothing but a fierce fighter. In this film the young man, whose real name was GO-Khla-Yeh--his Mexican opponents mistakenly called him Geronimo--is devoted to his family. In 1858, he migrates with his tribe to winter as usual in Sonora, Mex. With him are his wife, Alope, his three small children and his widowed mother. All except Geronimo would be slaughtered by troopers. This is not the usual cowboys and Indians version.

Chris Cook, executive producer for Norman Jewison’s Yorktown Productions, says that “TNT spent a lot of time deciding which projects they wanted to do, and one of them was Geronimo’s early years. We wanted to focus on why the man became the man he became and what happened in his younger years that affected him so.”

Ryan Black, 20, an Ojibway from Winnipeg, Manitoba, plays that young Geronimo. He has no theatrical experience, has worked only as an extra in one Canadian Broadcasting Co. TV production, but caught the eye of a casting director. “To go from the Canadian production to playing Geronimo as a young man is like jumping the Grand Canyon"--he pauses for effect and flashes a killer smile--"on a skateboard.”

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do. I never knew I was brown until I was 18--there are 50,000 native people in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and one day I just realized I was one of them, that this was my life.”

For Joseph Runningfox, a full-blooded Pueblo who plays the adult Geronimo, the film is a special opportunity. He won the role in an audition. “In a sense, I’d been preparing for something like this for years, going within the interior. If it weren’t for Geronimo’s being in tune with his own immortality, the thing that changed him completely, I think the Apache might have been wiped out. This is a very loving and caring person, but at the same time, he has the toughness that enabled him to save his people.”

Director Roger Young agrees. “This is the story of a real man. All of us use his name and none of us know anything about him. Geronimo was a man on a mission to avenge his people and that mission was from God. This is not something Western culture understands very well.

“When they sent me the script and I read it, I said, ‘I have to do this.’ There’s just one moment of drama after another and every one of them is honest and real. When you have a story that’s both dramatic and filled with new information you almost can’t help but fascinate the audience.

“This is an entirely Native American cast and I had never worked with that before,” says Young, who is from Illinois. “Until I began reading for this project I didn’t know much about it. I’m not sure we learned anything about the Indian wars in school except that they existed, and that the great and brave cavalry beat the (hell) out of the Indians who were ‘pagan savages.’

That’s just about what most North Americans learned in school, even Norris. “In Oklahoma where I grew up we had something in the schools called ‘Indian education.’ All I remember is its reinforcing the fact that our history was dead, our way of life was dead, we were no longer Indians--we were at one time, but we are no longer--and we must assimilate. " Norris had to learn about her heritage through family oral history. Many had no one to pass the stories along.

August Schellenberg, perhaps the best-known actor in the cast, has almost no contact with his family history. “I’m Swiss and Mohawk,” he says, explaining his startling blue eyes and handsome copper face. “I started out as a stevedore in Montreal.”

After auditioning for Canada’s National Theatre School on a whim, he found himself on stage for the first time as Hamlet. A mainstay of the Stratford festival and winner of the prestigious Guthrie Award, he has been an actor for more than 30 years but has never had an experience like this--playing not just a key role, but also mentor to a cast of young Native American actors.

“I play Cochise,” he says. “He held out to the end, but finally had to make peace. He understood that if the war continued, his people would be wiped out. He wasn’t just a fierce warrior, he was a very humane person. He understood that the enemy had lost as many as his people, that they had the same fears he did.”

Some of director Roger Young’s fears involved working with a largely inexperienced cast on a tight schedule. “Except for August, and Joseph Runningfox, who plays the adult Geronimo, these are pretty much brand-new actors. That’s pretty scary,” Young says.

(One other exception is Jimmy Herman, a Chipweyan who bookends the story as the elder Geronimo. Herman has appeared in “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven.”)

“For expample, I just did a dying scene with an actress who said, ‘I don’t know how to die. I’ve never died before.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ because most actors have died. Things like that can be frightening from the standpoint of schedule.

“We are quite a bit behind schedule . . . not surprising. To try to do it in a 22-day schedule, which is a normal television ‘bring them into a room, sit them down and have them talk’ kind of schedule, is absurd. We have no scenes like that. Everything is children and horses and all that stuff.”

By lunchtime the children, horses and all that stuff were saying their lines and hitting their marks like old pros. And suddenly, in the heat haze and swirling dust of the Arizona desert, a page of American history none of us ever knew materialized like a mirage.

“Geronimo” airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.; Wednesday at 1 p.m., and Saturday at 8 a.m. on TNT. It repeats on Dec. 12, 16 and 18.


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