It's back in the saddle for Selleck

Times Staff Writer

Who says the western genre is dead?

Certainly not actor Tom Selleck, who has made four oaters in the past 13 years, including basic cable's highest-rated and most-watched movie premiere in history.

Or Australian Simon Wincer, who directed the landmark 1989 miniseries "Lonesome Dove" and has made three westerns with Selleck.

And most certainly not TNT. Over the past decade, TNT -- the network founded by cable baron and buffalo rancher Ted Turner -- has produced several successful TV western films starring not only Selleck but Sam Elliott, Tommy Lee Jones and Bill Pullman. And now the cable outlet has invested $10 million -- its biggest budget to date for a movie -- in Selleck's latest sagebrush saga, "Monte Walsh," which premieres tonight on the network. (The film will repeat Saturday and Sunday.) The cable outlet will also present a western movie marathon throughout the weekend.

"Hollywood is always looking for the next idea," says Steve Koonin, executive vice president and general manager at TNT. "This is an idea that's still relevant and current to a very large audience. Westerns are part of the culture and tapestry that make up America. But it's not necessarily the hippest thing until the ratings come in."

And Selleck's two previous westerns for TNT garnered stellar ratings: "Last Stand at Saber River," based on an Elmore Leonard story, was the most-watched film on basic cable in 1997, attracting 5.2 million households. And two years ago, "Louis L'Amour's Crossfire Trail" delivered 9.9 million households on its first presentation. "We beat broadcast that night," Koonin says, adding that 38 million people tuned in to the western during its entire run on the network.

"Monte Walsh" reteams Selleck with Michael Brandman, who was executive producer with him on his two previous westerns, and Wincer, who directed the actor in the 1990 feature western "Quigley Down Under" and in "Crossfire Trail."

Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer ("Shane"), "Monte Walsh" tells the poignant tale of the final days of the Old West. Selleck's optimistic, hard-working Walsh is the last of a dying breed in the late 1890s, a real cowboy who finds his world changing as fast as the Western landscape. Corporations from the East are coming into small towns, buying up cattle ranches and fencing in the cowboys' beloved land. The big businesses end up slashing jobs, and the cowboys' world is crumbling around them. Walsh, though, refuses to let progress change the way he lives his life.

Isabella Rossellini plays Walsh's girlfriend, a bar owner who realizes he'll never settle down. Keith Carradine and George Eads are two of his cowboy buddies.

"Monte Walsh" was previously filmed in 1970, with Lee Marvin in the title role. Though the feature wasn't a critical or commercial success, "the movie always touched me," says Selleck. "I think the theme did, and I was certainly a huge Lee Marvin fan. But I think the movie suffered from the times -- at the period, in the early '70s, it seems like every movie was deeply cynical. They all seemed to say, 'Why bother being born because you are going to die anyway?' "

Thanks to the enormous popularity of "Crossfire Trail," Selleck and Co. were able to lasso a healthy budget out of TNT and even got the network to give them 2 1/2 hours -- a full half-hour longer than most television movies -- to let the story unfold.

"Look, some stories you can tell in 90 minutes -- that is about what you get out of two hours of TV time -- but more often than not TV movies suffer because you are shoehorned into that time frame," says Selleck. "And you need more time to tell a character-driven piece."

With TNT's backing, they were able to buy the rights not only to the book but to the screenplay of the 1970 version. "There are some very good things in that movie," Selleck says. "Then we set about asking, 'How do we combine these stories?' "

The key in telling the story, Selleck says, is playing up Walsh's optimism "and kind of steadfastness in the light of the villain. The villain of this piece is time. Monte is going to be forever changed by what happens in the movie, but it's very important to know that Monte is basically going to be all right. He's going to stay who he is because that's everything to Monte."

Selleck thinks "Monte Walsh" is the perfect western for the new millennium. Like his hero, the actor feels a little left behind in the 21st century. "I kind of miss the 20th century," he says, adding that he doesn't think it was an accident that he got the idea of doing "Monte Walsh" at the start of the millennium. "I really felt beyond western fans we would have an emotional, character-driven story that everybody would understand because of that experience we all felt."

The barren but beautiful countryside and exquisite sunsets of Calgary, Canada, where "Monte Walsh" was filmed, are as much characters as the actors themselves -- as in such John Ford westerns as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers." Wincer says he grew up with a deep love of the country and landscape.

"I have a cattle ranch in Australia, and a farmer's life revolves around the weather," he says. "You depend on the rain to grow grass, and so you become very aware of landscape and mood."

Wincer believes that recent feature westerns like "American Outlaws" have failed because producers have tried to make them hip. "You can't make a hip western," Wincer says. "Some actors don't belong in westerns -- it's that simple -- and some actors can't wear cowboy hats. A lot of people can't ride horses."

That isn't the case with Selleck, who is an experienced horseman. With his weathered hat, walrus mustache, well-worn clothes, gun belt and boots, Selleck seems as at home on the range as he was playing the fun-loving, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing shamus on "Magnum, PI."

"He understands the lifestyle and the truth," Koonin says of Selleck. "He is authentic -- his mannerisms, his saddle and his gun are credible."

"He loves the genre," says Wincer. "He has a great admiration [for cowboys]. These guys, no matter how many knocks they take, they are incredibly polite. They always bounce back. Even the group of wranglers we had on this movie. They were just wonderful guys, and the enormous love they have for their horses, dogs and cattle ... they are a dying sort of breed."


'Monte Walsh'

When: 8 and 10:30 tonight, and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It repeats several more times during the month.

Where: TNT

Rating: The network has rated it TV14-V (may not be suitable for children under 14, with an advisory for violence).

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