Craig Johnson relates his experiences on set while filming the small-screen adaptation of his Walt Longmire series.
We were filming the pilot episode for Longmire last March, when the director, Chris Chulack, turned to me and said, ‘Do you want to be in this scene?’
I glanced through the twin monitors and onto the street outside the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Office set in Las Vegas, New Mexico, doing its best to appear as northern Wyoming. Across the street Katee Sackoff, the actress who plays Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, was practising a scene with another actor, Rio Alexander, by yanking the much larger man from her unit, throwing him onto the hood of a parked car, cuffing him and dragging him across the street toward us.
‘I don’t think so.’
Chris smiled. ‘I meant you could stand on the sidewalk and do a cameo; all the authors do it.’
I remember seeing John Irving as the conductor in Cider House Rules, and even heard that Lee Child did a stint as an NYPD cop who hands his character Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) his toothbrush in Reacher, and when I asked him about it, Lee told me he delivered his one line flawlessly.
But the story that always hangs in my mind is the one when Tony Hillerman had a speaking line in the 1991 film The Dark Wind, where he played a state penitentiary warden. The scene is documented in one of my favourite books, Tony’s autobiography, Seldom Disappointed, with a photograph of Tony in a suit and tie alongside the young actor playing Jim Chee in the film – Mr Lou Diamond Phillips.
What goes around comes around, in that Lou is now playing Henry Standing Bear in the televised version of my books. The looks on the two men’s faces in the photograph are priceless – Tony has a look of disappointed perplexity, and Lou’s expression is one of devastatingly wry humor.
Lou tells it best: ‘Hillerman was a warm and kind gentleman, who made me extremely proud and grateful to bring such an iconic character to life. Every once in a while, we get blessed with the kind of writing that brings out the best in us and challenges us to bring our hearts, minds and souls to a role completely. Funny thing is, he could write the words so very eloquently but had a little more trouble making them come out of his own mouth.’
What Lou is graciously saying is that Tony blew his lines on every take, so much so that they decided that maybe it would be best if Tony simply ‘looked’ the line. I guess that didn’t work either because, in Tony’s own words, ‘I ended up on the cutting-room floor.’
I stood there looking at Chris Chulack, the captain of the ship, the man I was entrusting to coax the best performances from the best and brightest performers, the man who wanted me to go out on the sidewalk and represent some semblance of humanity.
‘I don’t think so.’
He studied me, a little surprised. ‘Really? You’re sure?’
‘You don’t have to say anything.’
I thought about it, figuring I’d trip over the kerb. ‘That’s OK.’
A few days later, I guess not completely satisfied with my response, Chulack gave me another shot at a scene in Henry Standing Bear’s Red Pony Bar. There were dozens of extras in the place, loud and raucous, so much noise that you wouldn’t have been able to hear me stumble through a line if I remembered it.
My wife, Judy, hung on my arm in hopes that I would say yes, the two of us immortalised in television posterity.
‘Nope, I don’t think so.’