Sunday, July 15, 2018

High Praise in Deadwood

by Sherlynn Hicks (writer), Reseda, March 18, 2007

William Sanderson, who played Eustace Bailey (E.B.) Farnum on HBO’s lyrically blue and now unfortunately cancelled western “Deadwood,” was never nominated for an Emmy for that role. I knnnow. Can you believe it? Stupid Emmys.

Very well. I’ll take up the drum.

It’s a difficult drum to beat. Not because Sanderson doesn’t deserve it. Not because Sanderson hasn’t paid his dues – on time, every time. Not because, as witnessed by his 70-some-odd filmography, Sanderson isn’t the very soul of “Supporting Actor.” It’s because Sanderson’s talent lies in Sanderson being Sanderson. Awards aren’t given out for being who one is. Were they, our mantles would be groaning under the weight of trophied recognition.

Are Supporting Actors but the fringe of the screen tableau, there to offer impetus to the plot, the dialogue, or the main actor? Yes, but the most compelling of them do so without losing purchase on who they are, filling the character with what makes the real life human unique. Westerns, like “Deadwood” (if such a comparison were fair) are rife with them. Woody Strode. Strother Martin. Jack Elam. Supporting Actors there so that the Star can menace and convince them and thereby affect we who watch.

I spoke with William Sanderson very early one June morning. I was struck by his voice, twanging somewhere between a Capote and Skynyrd. He greeted me like we were forever friends. So familiar was his voice that he seemed seconds away from introducing me to his brother Daryl and other brother Daryl.

I asked him about the surprising fact that, technically, he’s a lawyer.

“I was fascinated by crime itself or flamboyant criminal lawyers, but I read a book by Adlai Stevenson…He said law was as noble as any other profession. The chance to save a person's life… You know that I refer to myself as an ignorant man, almost a lawyer. My friends are lawyers and have done pro bono work. And I look around. But I still dream.”

Sanderson says the words, but I hear the ache to belong of J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner.”

I ask about the decision to not take the bar and go “try acting.”

“That's probably the toughest question…. it might not have been wise, but I had the New York company TGI Friday's giving me a job and I had cash in my pocket because I worked in Memphis and Nashville at Friday’s. I opened their first franchise. Helped them in Nashville. So when they said come to New York, I always didn't think I could afford an eastern private university. It was my chance to do an apprenticeship for life. And I had cash. That was something that I [never] had.”

On his website and in our conversation, he referred to a majority of the roles he plays as Prairie Scum. I hate that term. Something about the “scum” part that relegates those characters and ultimately the people to insignificance. “Scum” is what the prairie rejected, gristle and bones spit sideways on the heap; what a growing country had no use for, other than as a warning of what not to be.

William Sanderson does have a knack, though. It can be uncomfortable to watch him in whatever role he is playing. It is as if the director snatched up an everyday soul off the street in the throes of sadness, pain, anger or a hilariously ridiculous situation, slapped him in front of a camera and said “Action.”

We then see Sanderson’s face onscreen, still like a toddler’s, full of wonder and tinged by dissolution. We’re watching a man really become unhinged, or long for something, or hiss pained vitriol because, as an episode of “Deadwood” is titled, “E.B. was left out, E.B. was left out.”

And I beat the drum.

About the Writer

Sherlynn Hicks is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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