If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor

Tuesday, August 15th, 2023

Hollywood will tell you what you’re supposed to do, Taylor Sheridan says, if you listen:

”If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor. But the first thing I ever wrote [the pilot for Mayor of Kingstown in 2011] got me meetings at every major network, at every agency. I had multiple people trying to buy it.”

Yet Sheridan refused to sell. The studios, he says, wanted to hire a room of more experienced writers to tackle the project — you know, make TV the usual way. Sheridan felt that he knew exactly how to write the show himself. So even back then, getting his first taste of success as a writer, Sheridan was reluctant to let others adapt his material and demonstrated a willingness to walk away. Some might call that stubborn or impractical; Sheridan sees it as trusting his instincts and sticking to his creative guns. He put Mayor of Kingstown in a drawer.

Over the next few years, Sheridan made a name for himself writing a trio of acclaimed films — Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017) — which he dubbed his “modern American frontier” trilogy.

Another of his scripts, Yellowstone, was likewise originally written as a movie. Sheridan pitched it as “The Godfather in Montana,” and it ended up in series development at HBO. Sheridan says then-programming president Michael Lombardo was supportive, but the rest of his team wasn’t.

“I thought Taylor was the real deal,” Lombardo says. “In a world of people who pose, he was writing what he knew, and he cared desperately about the show. The idea of doing a modern-classic Western was a great idea — we were always doing urban shows, and this felt fresh.”

The one thing they all agreed on was that Yellowstone needed a big star to play its uncompromising patriarch, John Dutton. Sheridan pitched Costner, but HBO executives “didn’t see it.”

“They said, ‘We want Robert Redford,’ ” Sheridan recalls. “They said, ‘If you can get us Robert Redford, we’ll greenlight the pilot.’ “

Being a can-do type of guy, Sheridan went to visit Robert Redford.

“I drive to Sundance and spend the day with him and he agrees to play John Dutton,” Sheridan says. “I call the senior vice president in charge of production and say, ‘I got him!’ ‘You got who?’ ‘Robert Redford.’ ‘What?!‘ ‘You said if I got Robert Redford, you’d greenlight the show.’ “

“And he says — and you can’t make this shit up — ‘We meant a Robert Redford type.’ ”

A crisis meeting was scheduled with the network vp (“whose name I remember, but I’m just not saying it”) to get to the bottom of HBO’s reluctance.

“We go to lunch in some snazzy place in West L.A.,” Sheridan says. “And [Yellowstone co-creator] John Linson finally asks: ‘Why don’t you want to make it?’ And the vp goes: ‘Look, it just feels so Middle America. We’re HBO, we’re avant-garde, we’re trendsetters. This feels like a step backward. And frankly, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone should be living out there [in rural Montana]. It should be a park or something.’ “


HBO typically retains the rights to scripts it develops and rejects, partly to prevent what happened next from happening — a project they spent time and money developing becoming a global smash for a competitor.

“When the regime changed, Lombardo called me,” Sheridan says about the longtime HBO exec’s exit in 2016. “To his credit, he said, ‘I always believed in the show, but I could not get any support.’ His last act before they fired him was to give me the script back.”

As for that nameless vp, Sheridan says he left HBO and landed a production deal. After Yellowstone took off, he emailed Sheridan to say congratulations — and to pitch him a family drama.

Sheridan says he wrote back: “Great idea. It sounds just like Yellowstone.”

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