getTV Talks HOW THE WEST WAS WON with Bruce Boxleitner

bruce-boxleitner

If you’ve turned on a TV anytime in the last 45 years or so, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Bruce Boxleitner.

From How The West Was Won in the 1970s to Scarecrow And Mrs. King in the ‘80s, Babylon 5 in the ‘90s and most recently Cedar Cove and Supergirl, the 69-year-old Illinois native has been one of the medium’s most popular leading men for decades. But it all began with How The West Was Won, the 1976–79 Western series starring James Arness (Gunsmoke) as mountain man Zeb Macahan.  

And this Thanksgiving, we’re giving you an opportunity to revisit the role that made Boxleitner a star. On Thanksgiving Day, getTV will air 10 hours of How The West Was Won starting at 10a ET! The journey begins with the epic 1976 pilot film The Macahans and continues all day long with the entire first season.

The cast of this Emmy-winning series based on the 1962 film also features Eva Marie Saint and Richard Kiley as Luke’s parents, Kathryn Holcomb, William Kirby Cullen and Vicki Schreck as his siblings and, beginning in season two, Fionnula Flanagan. Plus, there’s a wagon train of famous faces, including Anthony Zerbe, Jack Elam and Don Murray.

Luke Macahan is a role Boxleitner still has great fondness for, as he told getTV in a recent phone interview. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.

HOW THE WEST WAS WON (L-R) William Kirby Cullen, Bruce Boxleitner, James Arness, Vicki Schreck, Fionnula Flanagan, Kathryn Holcomb

getTV: How did you begin your career?

BRUCE BOXLEITNER: I was in New York for a couple of years. I came out here at the end of 1973, early ‘74 with a few phone numbers in my pocket, some money I'd saved up, and an agent I was very lucky to have. My very first job was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a heck of a place to start!

It was thrilling. I was basically a stage actor, with no experience film wise, so being in front of the camera was a whole different thing. Three, four lines is all I had. My entire paycheck went to getting my Screen Actors Guild card.

And then you did an episode of Gunsmoke.  

I did the very last one shot. You're talking twenty years of Gunsmoke and I was in the last episode. To tell you truthfully, I thought I was so horrible… [LAUGH]

You thought you killed Gunsmoke?

I killed Gunsmoke, yes! [LAUGH] I did. I was mortified. And the irony is, I would join the ranks of all the former Gunsmoke people that went over to MGM with The Macahans, which became How the West Was Won: executive producer John Mantley, wonderful writers and producers, and Jim Arness himself.

And James Arness lobbied for you to get the job.

I had to compete with every other young actor. And I remember being very nervous, because this is what I always wanted to be. Jim, being the star, had casting approval and he stuck to his guns for me. It ended up becoming a wonderful working relationship.

You’ve said he taught you how to be the star of a TV series.  What did you mean?

Just the way he behaved and how professional he was. He knew every scene. He knew everyone's dialogue. And he was very gracious. He would talk to the writers and say, “Zeb's talking too much here. Maybe Bruce ought to say that.” Of course, no one argued with him. 

And Zeb Macahan was a whole different breed from Matt Dillon.

He had been playing Matt Dillon for so long, but he got to let loose on this character. He got to be this rollicking mountain man — a drinker, carouser, and friend to the Indians with a Wild Bill Hickok look. He really enjoyed it.

HOW THE WEST WAS WON Bruce Boxleitner and James Arness

Did you have a good experience working with Richard Kiley and Eva Marie Saint?

Oh yeah, all the kids on the show, we just pinched ourselves. We couldn’t believe we were working with these people. Richard Kiley was such a marvelous actor. Eva Marie, I see her every couple years. I always called her “Ma” and she called me “Luke.”

I read that the pilot was the longest and most expensive pilot in TV history.

At that time, yeah. That was entirely shot on location in southeastern Utah and in the mountains out here in California.

When the show got picked up, you kept doing feature-length episodes. What was behind that decision?

Roots came out and became this massive hit. We came on following Roots. Big epics were the thing. And we came in with a 50 share (of the ratings). Half the country watched it. It was huge. It was a testament to the staying power of James Arness.

Fionnula Flanagan joined the cast in season two. Did you have a good experience working with her?

She’s marvelous, a terrific lady and a wonderful actress. She just lit up the screen.

HOW THE WEST WAS WON Fionnula Flanagan

Do you have a sense of why the series ended after only three seasons?

Westerns started to flag a bit. Another era was coming in and we had this tremendously expensive show. We go through these eras where a certain thing becomes popular. When I was doing Scarecrow And Mrs. King, it was the couples. It started with Hart To Hart.

Did you work with James Arness again?

In 1987 we did a remake of the John Wayne/Montgomery Clift Western Red River (1948) for CBS. They wanted somebody like Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas. I kept pestering them saying, “Guys, there’s only one John Wayne on television.” This is how I paid it back. I was so proud of that, that I got to influence that.

And then you did the final Gunsmoke reunion film with him. Did he request you?

Yup. I think they were pushing for one of the singing stars to play the younger guy. And I heard that Jim said, “I don’t want to teach some singer how to act. Get me Boxleitner!” [LAUGH] And little did I know that would be the last thing we would do.

Do you remember the last time you saw him?

He did a book signing of his autobiography at the Autry Museum. A lot of us who are still left from Gunsmoke and How The West Was Won came there to be with him during the book signing. And he loved it.

The trend nowadays is to revisit old shows decades later with new episodes. Have you ever thought about playing Luke Macahan again?

Oh yes, absolutely. How The West Was Won basically ended somewhere in the 1870s. There was a lot of the Old West yet to come, all the way into the early 1900s. I believe Luke went on to become one of the great peace officers of the end of the Old West.

Forty years later, Luke Macahan is an aging, Matt Dillon-type lawman. Wouldn’t that be perfect?

I would love it, my friend. I would love it.

Bruce Boxleitner stars in a Thanksgiving Day marathon of HOW THE WEST WAS WON Thursday, November 28 starting at 10a ET. And the series continues in its regular timeslot Sundays at 12:30p ET on getTV. Connect with Bruce on Facebook and Twitter 

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