Westerns saddle up for TV comeback

LOS ANGELES Thu Nov 3, 2011 8:33am EDT

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The TV Western is saddling up for a big comeback, and actor Anson Mount couldn't be happier.

Mount, 38, plays a rugged post-Civil War soldier with revenge on his mind in the new series "Hell on Wheels", making its debut on cable channel AMC on Sunday and heralding a revival of a genre that dominated U.S. television in the 1950s and '60s.

"Hell on Wheels" is set during the building of the Union Pacific railroad in the 19th Century, and comes complete with vast rolling plains, trigger-happy lawmen and scalping Native Americans.

For Mount, it's a role born of childhood dreams in his native Tennessee, when he said he began playing cowboys and Indians at the age of six.

"I would climb this sort of half blown-over tree in my backyard, and I had a cowboy hat and a sheriff's badge and a little plastic six-shooter around my hip," Mount recalled.

Filming "Hell on Wheels", he said, "I spend a day on a horse out in the sun getting to shoot a grizzly. I can't believe I'm not having to pay them to do this. It's amazing."

Hip-hop artist and actor Common, who plays a recently freed mixed-race slave working on the railroad, agreed. "It's fun to be in the mud and running around with guns. Learning to ride a horse. It's a great time," he told reporters.

Gunsmoke and wagons aside, "Hell on Wheels" also casts an unsentimental eye on a key turning point in the forging of the United States, the ravaging of Native American land and the price of progress.

"We want to tell a story about civilization vs. untouched nature. The imposing of civilization can be absolutely brutal," said co-executive producer Joe Gayton.

"I'm amazed by the tenacity, the boldness and the sheer courage of what people did in order to complete the task at hand. There was death around every corner but they continued on," Gayton said.

GRAY HATS

Unlike classic Hollywood Westerns where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black, the characters in "Hell on Wheels" -- including a bevy of prostitutes -- are more gray.

"Our characters are complex, jumbled. They've all got good in them. They've all got a lot of bad in them. Anson's character, Cullen Bohannon, is driven first by revenge, but he's also an ex-slave owner," said executive producer Tony Gayton.

"Hell on Wheels" leads a stampede of Westerns coming up or in development in the next two years, although the numbers are unlikely to match the more than 25 prime-time TV Westerns when the genre was at its height in 1959.

NBC has ordered up two scripts -- one involving a Western story told from a female point of view -- while A&E has a Western-themed crime thriller in the works that is set in Montana called "Longmire."

ABC has a project called "Gunslinger" in development for 2012, as well as a series titled "Hangtown" that is described as a combination of a crime drama and a traditional Western.

Even Disney Channel is in on the act, starting production on an animated series starring a kitty cat sheriff that is billed as the first Western for pre-schoolers. The Disney Junior series, "Oki's Oasis" is expected to air in 2013.

Irish actor Colm Meaney, who plays a greedy entrepreneur in "Hell on Wheels," said that like sci-fi shows set in the future, returning to the past can cast light on the present.

"There's a huge amount of social issues than can be addressed in this way that are still hugely relevant today. So by going back or forward, you can give yourself a much bigger canvas than just doing a contemporary show," Meaney said.

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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