Shakespeare in the park is a far cry from playing a Texas
Ranger in Larry McMurtry's new miniseries ``Dead Man's Walk.'' But,
leave it to a Tulsan to successfully make that leap.
Tim Blake Nelson, an accomplished character actor on stage, screen
and TV, was appearing in ``Troilus and Cressida'' in New York
City's Central Park when he was seen by an actor. The latter ran
into a casting person for the miniseries at a party and mentioned
``She knew who I was and told him `Oh, my God. There is this role
we are trying to cast and it's the last one and we haven't been
able to find the right actor. I've got to bring Tim in.'''
She called, he auditioned on tape and, by the end of the week, ``I
basically had the job.'' Two weeks later, he was in Texas, riding a
horse and learning to take apart his Hawking rifle.
``I was really put through my paces,'' said Nelson, who is the son
of Tulsans Ruth Kaiser Nelson and Don Nelson. `Let's just say, my
horsemanship is suspect. I went down about a week early and rode
and learned all about my gun.
``I spent a lot of time with my gun -- taking it apart, putting
it back together, cleaning it. I even took it to my hotel room at
night. It was something that was completely unfamiliar to me. But,
I felt like this guy would know everything about it. It was a lot
of that pretentious actor stuff.''
The Western drama, based on McMurtry's bestseller ``Dead Man's
Walk,'' is the prequel to the hit book and miniseries ``Lonesome
Dove.'' It focuses on the early Texas Ranger days of leader
characters Augustus McRae (played by David Arquette) and Woodrow
Call (Jonny Lee Miller). ABC will air the miniseries at 8 p.m.
Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday on Channel 8 in Tulsa.
Nelson portrays Johnny Carthage, one of the original Rangers who
join up for the ill-fated expedition from Texas to Santa Fe in the
1840s. In addition to Arquette and Miller, it stars F. Murray
Abraham, Keith Carradine, Patricia Childress, Joaquim De Almeida,
Brian Dennehy, Edward James Olmos, Eric Schweig and Harry Dean
Stanton. The cast and crew spent three months filming on location
in southwestern Texas.
Nelson's character Johnny, is one of the colorful Rangers featured
in a film built around relationships, he explained in a phone
interview from his home in New York.
``The back story is that I am a character actor,'' said Nelson, who
will direct the filming of his own screenplay ``Eye of God''
beginning July 15 in Collinsville. ``I normally play a supporting
role and, to do that effectively, I believe you have to look at the
``The big picture here is that `Dead Man's Walk' is very much
structured around partners. The two lead partners are Gus and Call
and every other relationship in the film, it seems to me, echoes
that or relates to it ...
``There is a relationship between Long Bill Coleman (played by Ray
McKinnon) and Johnny Carthage. I think, first of all, they are
absolutely dependent on one another. When something happens to
Carthage, Long Bill has to go on. In its own small way, I think
that foreshadows or is a distant cousin to what happens to Gus and
Call in ``Lonesome Dove.' But, it's not absolutely central to the
story. These are supporting roles.''
Nelson, who will remind viewers of a young Hume Cronyn in the part,
and his ``partner'' in the film, Ray McKinnon, came up with their
own background story about the relationship between the two characters.
``We had been friends since boyhood,'' said the thirtysomething
actor who graduated from the Julliard Theater Center and studied
with the Moscow Arts Theater Conservatory. ``I was orphaned. You
know, all the stuff that was personal for us. We spent time
creating a personal history that could infuse our roles. Really,
except for the part in Austin, it's very much about playing the
roles together, sticking together.''
Nelson, who had not read any McMurtry books before he got the part,
quickly read ``Dead Man's Walk'' followed by ``Pretty Boy Floyd.''
He was impressed, he said. The author was on the set every day and
he and Nelson became friends.
``I admire him tremendously,'' said Nelson, whose character in the
miniseries sports a wide scar across his face, an opaque contact
lens in one eye and a limp. ``I admire him tremendously. He knows
McMurtry is scheduled to begin another film in Texas this summer
and Nelson said he is confident he will be remembered by the author
if a part fits him.
``If there is something right, I will get it. So either I will be
right or I won't. You spend three months in the middle of nowhere
with a group of people and you behave yourself and deliver what it
is they have hired you for, then you have to trust that people will
Nelson, who wrote a screenplay for ``Eye of God'' based on his
stage play of the same name, will be directing Hal Holbrook and
Martha Plimpton in this summer's production. It is only the latest
in a series of many theatrical accomplishments, which include eight
films, 10 television appearances and live performances in both
dramas and comedies too numerous to mention. Versatility is the key
to his success, he said.
``I have been very lucky in that way,'' he said. ``I think since I
got out of acting school, I have done a film, TV show and a play
every year. And, I don't brag about that. I simply feel lucky
because it has allowed me the kind of versatile experience that I
had always dreamed of having as an actor.
``It would be hard for me to brag. I don't play starring roles.
I play good character roles and that, again, is all I ever wanted.''
Nelson said that as a character actor, ``there is really no such
thing as the `big break.' You accumulate roles.
``And, eventually, you are able to look back on a career in which
each role is wildly and deliciously different. What it does for
your career is it enhances your credibility. But it doesn't go much
farther than that.''
The decision for him to become a character actor, he said, was made by God.
``I don't have `leading man' looks or size or physical proportions,'' said
Nelson who is 5-foot-5 1/2 and ``isn't going to win any beauty contests.''
His role in what is destined to be another hit miniseries for
McMurtry is just another addition to his accumulation of work.
``Right now, I'm in preproduction for my movie and I'm acting in a
film called `Donnie Brasco.' It is directed by Mike Newell who did
``Four Weddings and a Funeral'' and stars Al Pacino and Johnny
Depp. It's a Mafia movie and I play an FBI technician.''