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Inside Larry McMurtry’s Dusty World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and his collaborator Diana Ossana are living pretty much in a “Lonesome Dove” world these days.

“Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo,” the five-hour miniseries based on his 1993 sequel to “Lonesome Dove,” airs Sunday and Tuesday on CBS. McMurtry and Ossana penned the screenplay based on his novel and also are executive producers. James Garner plays Texas Ranger Captain Woodrow Call, the role Tommy Lee Jones originated in the Emmy Award-winning CBS miniseries version of “Lonesome Dove” in 1989. Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard also star; Joseph Sargent directed.

It’s interesting, McMurtry reflects, “with a fictional world, if you live in it so long, it becomes your world. This has happened to my little hometown in Texas as a result of ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Texasville’ being filmed there. It doesn’t quite know if it is a real place.”

Says Ossana, laughing, “We have been so immersed in ‘Streets of Laredo’ that there are lines from the movie that are appropriate to life. Instead of responding as we might have, we respond from one of the lines from ‘Streets of Laredo.’ ”

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Set 20 years after “Lonesome Dove,” “Streets of Laredo” takes place in the 1890s and follows the adventures of Call (Garner) on his last manhunt--for a psychopathic 17-year-old boy. Joining him in his trek across Texas and Mexico is his onetime corporal, Pea Eye Parker (Shepard). Pea Eye’s wife Lorena (Spacek), the girlfriend of Call’s late friend and partner Gus McCrae, sets out after her husband to persuade him to come home.

Being hands-on executive producers of “Streets” was a learning process for McMurtry and Ossana. “We ended up on the set,” she says. “We watched dailies every day. Sometimes repeatedly during the day. This project was a very positive revelation.”

The experience also helped them when it came time to write the screenplay for “Dead Man’s Walk,” which focuses on Call and McCrae’s early years. (McMurtry is set to write another “Lonesome Dove” installment in 1997.) “Dead Man’s Walk” is currently on the bestseller list and the ABC miniseries version of it is in production in Texas for broadcast next year.

“The first draft on the second one is better structurally because of our experiences,” Ossana says. “It’s a much more compact script. You kind of learn what works and what doesn’t work as a writer while you are on a set--what kind of scenes will work and what won’t. It’s almost like you absorb it without realizing it.”

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“What we learned in the process of producing the first one,” McMurtry says, “is that things that seem crystal clear to us aren’t necessarily crystal clear to the viewers as it comes out on the screen.”

In a novel, Ossana says, the characters’ feelings and thoughts can be expressed through internal monologues. “With a screenplay, you have to assume the viewer knows nothing,” Ossana says. “You have to tell them the story. It’s a difficult thing to sort of step back from that and imagine yourself not knowing anything.”

McMurtry and Ossana segued immediately from the manuscript of “Dead Man’s Walk” to writing the screenplay. (Ossana edited both novels.)

“It’s much better to do it that way,” McMurtry says. “We didn’t quite get to that with ‘Streets of Laredo.’ The closer the adaptation to the writing of the novel, the better. The emotion doesn’t die, meaning you’ve still got some feeling for the story. The reason I stopped and never tried again [after 1971’s ‘The Last Picture Show’] to adapt until I had my own partner is because in that gap you completely lose interest in that story. In some cases, 15 years have passed. You can’t go back and feel anything very genuine for that story.”

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“If you really want to capture the emotions of a story you have to be in it,” Ossana says. “You have to feel like you know these people. It takes a tremendous amount of focused energy to do that.”

McMurtry isn’t shocked that “Lonesome Dove” has taken on a life of its own. “ ‘Lonesome Dove’ is sort of a mythic phenomenon,” he says matter-of-factly. “It has gotten way beyond me. All over the West there are horses named Lonesome Dove. The dog that won the Westminster dog show in New York three years ago is named Lonesome Dove. There are bars and honky-tonks and a line of furniture. There is a proposed franchise of steakhouses. You don’t control things like that. You don’t even worry about controlling it. It struck some cord in the national appetite for the West when it was still wide and open.”

Of course, Ossana adds, McMurtry has a lot to do with its enormous success. “The style of Larry’s writing ... he tells a wonderful story. The stories are filled with characters who are rich and full. They are flawed and lovable at the same time--even the ones who are violent and killers. Gus and Call are both killers. I think that the audiences care about these people, and the fact that it’s a Western is even more appealing to us Americans.”

“Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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