it's a phone interview, most writing assignments start out
|the same old way: planes, trains, and automobiles.
You get the gig, you hit the road, and you get the job done, be
it at a hotel or on a movie set or in some foreign country. Not
so with Tommy Lee Jones.
By the time I arrived at his West Texas ranch, I
had flown across both of Texas's time zones, driven another couple hundred
miles, and ended up on a dusty ranch road following an intricate series
of rights and lefts, crossing cattle guards and looking for tell-tale
railroad ties. And the best part? The welcome wagon that greeted me.
was less than a mile away from the WD's headquarters when off in the distance
I heard some hollering. I cut the engine, got out of the car, and the
next sound I picked out was the pounding of horses' hooves. Surrounded
by low hills, I couldn't see anyone, but could I hear those cowboys coming.
A cloud of dust soon cloaked the sky. I drove out on to a flat, and there,
not 100 yards off, my host and his men had reined in their horses and
gone from a gallop to a walk as they made their way back to the barn.
That first week of May 2000, I spent three memorable days at the WD. This
story, which first ran in Cowboys & Indians,
chronicles the better part of my stay.
It's the type of terrain that most people only know from the moviesrugged
mountains rising up off enormous ranches where cattle, a few cowboys,
and an occasional dust devil are all that exist with the exception of
what the good Lord saw fit to put there. In this stretch of West Texas
people and towns are few and far between, but many a Western has been
filmed out here, and this morning's gathering seems scripted from Giant,
Lonesome Dove, or maybe The Good Old Boys.
Cowboys mill around the campfire. Cattle bellow in the dark. A camp cook
shovels coals on top of a Dutch oven. Make no mistakejust because
one of Hollywood's biggest names is about to pull up in a pickup truck,
this is no movie set. These men are not actors. It's spring roundup on
the WD, and since the days of the Apache, the WD has been a working ranch,
owned and operated by men like W.D. Reynolds, who stocked it with hardy
cattle, ran it with a tight fist, and kept a close eye on their herds,
their waters, and their country. And now that Tommy Lee Jones is running
this ranch, odds are things won't be changing any time soon.
They are without question a most unlikely band of brotherssome Argentines,
a Uruguayan, a couple of mexicanos, and half
a dozen Texans. Not that you can tell them apart at this hour of the morning.
Even though they've all been up since five, it's still another hour till
then, as they make their way across the Fence Post Pasture on horseback,
each will be easy to pick outthe gaucho by his felt chambergo
(hat) and poncho (cape), the vaquero with
his straw sombrero and pitiado
belt, and the cowboys, their well-worn chaps and hand-tooled boots covered
Right now they're all parked under the fly of a mule-driven chuck wagon,
warming their hands over the campfire or with a cup of hot black coffee.
There's a good bed of coals goingthe cooks have been up since fourand
the glow is just bright enough so you can see the steam rising off some
fresh-baked biscuits and a pile of fried bacon.
The first light of day comes when some headlights approach the camp. Everyone
knows it's Tommy Lee Jones. This is his ranch, and he's running roundup
so when the man says breakfast is at six a.m. he holds the entire outfit,
including himself, to that schedule. I know for a fact he steps out of
that pickup clean-shaven and ready to ride, and if there were a time clock
on that chuck wagon he'd have punched in at 5:59:59. Even though he's
just a shadow in the dark, the sound of his spurs makes right for the
wagon. What happens next seems like an outtake from The
"What's everyone standing around for?" Jones asks. "Looks
to me like breakfast is ready, and as best I can recall we've got some
cattle to work, gentlemen. Let's dig in." It's the sort of take charge
attitude that no one does better than Tommy Lee Jonesdirect, driven,
uncompromising, and unapologetic.
Jones on this day at the WD, on horseback, in his office, around the burn
box during branding, it becomes apparent that the native Texan is as much
a character off screen as on. Like many of his acting roles, the most
illuminating aspects to the man are the sides rarely seen. Consider him
in The Fugitive where his character, Deputy
U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, relentlessly hunts down Dr. Richard Kimble.
What makes the movie (and probably won Jones an Academy Award) is when
Gerard stuns Harrison Ford's character by uncuffing him in the film's
final scene and handing him an ice pack.
"I thought you didn't care," Kimble says.
"I don't," grins Gerard. "Don't tell anybody, OK?"
Just like Gerard, Jones is not in any hurry to reveal this caring side.
He's not ashamed of it, and he doesn't hide it. It's this contradictory
part to his personality that makes him so fascinating on the setand
on the ranch.
For the last four days, Jones and his crew have worked from dawn to dusk
on the WD, riding horseback through pastures with rough cut names like
the Jake and the Deep Well, driving herds of Brangus cattle into pens
where hundreds of calves get branded. Yet a couple of weeks before roundup
begins, when we speak about this interview, it's not the cattle on the
WD that concerns Jones. He cuts our conversation short because his top
priority is an Easter Egg hunt that he and his girlfriend, Dawn, are organizing
for his daughter, Victoria, and the kids off the neighboring ranches.
It may not be his most familiar role, but to Victoria, 9, and his son
Austin, 17, he's the caring parent who puts Hollywood and journalists
But now roundup is in full swing. About 100 cows and calves off the Fence
Post Pasture were worked this morning, and when the crew gathers for lunch
at the chuck wagon, cold water and iced tea are in high demand. While
everyone else talks, Jones sits off to the side, looking over the morning's
numbers. It's as if he has a good script in his hands, and no one disturbs
Jones and George Kidd, his ranch vet, will spend a good half hour reviewing
roundup totals in the WD's spartan ranch office, where Jones's idea of
decorative art leans towards topographic maps and water well charts, not
Remingtons and Russells. He sits behind a simple pine desk and pays no
attention to today's pile of faxes from head honchos in the media and
entertainment world. In four days he'll be off for Cannes to the overseas
release of Rules of Engagement, but right
now spandex-clad starlets and buzzing paparazzi aren't on his mind. What
matters most to Jones is his ranch numbers, not his box office numbers.
"The average weaning weight of a calf off the WD last year was better
than 700 pounds. That's really ringing a bell on the west side of the
Pecos River," Jones says, clearly proud of his off-screen performance.
It's ironic that in an industry where actors have to "learn"
to play cowboy, Jones doesn't have to. He's been ranching for 20 years;
he's got cowboy in his blood. One of his most cherished possessions is
a bit he uses that belonged to his grandfather, Archie Lee Scott. It dates
back to 1919.
"Granddaddy rode remounts for the cavalry. Worked for Len Mertz.
One year he broke 200 horses. He was an awful good cowboy," he says.
was only natural that Jones was cast as Hawk Hawkins in what will certainly
be one of this summer's biggest blockbusters, Space
Cowboys. A Texas cowboy, Hawkins is recruited to join a group of
ex-Air Force pilots whose mission is to salvage a malfunctioning satellite.
Together with his crewmates, played by Clint Eastwood (who also directs),
Jim Garner, and Donald Sutherland, they team up in outer space, bend and
break a healthy number of rules and regulations, and of course, save the
"Let me tell you how they broke me in," he says. "First
day I drove out to the set, said hello to Clint, got costumed, and went
to makeup. When I was all ready, Clint asked me, 'Are you afraid of flying?'
And when I told him I wasn't he pointed to an old Army biplane and said,
'Hop in.' It was a Stearman, and I thought we were just going to shoot
a scene without even taking off. Next thing you know we're doing barrel
rolls and loop the loops. We flew those canyons so close that afterwards
when I asked the pilot about my parachute, he told me, 'We were so low
it wouldn't have worked anyway.'"
Jones stays humble as he talks about what it was like to work with the
best in the business. "I feel pretty lucky," he says. "Those
guys, they know my name. They know who I am. Not bad for a little Indian
boy. Not bad." I ask him his tribe and am quickly corrected about
his grandmother's heritage.
"It's not a tribe. It's a nation," he says. "The Cherokee
Jones is keenly aware of the fickle nature of fame and fortune. Despite
his many successes, he knows he's been lucky, and he has a unique way
of reminding himself of his good fortune: his brand. An upside down seven
with a hash mark through the middle, he calls it the Siete Loco (a Spanish
term meaning "crazy seven").
"I use that brand because it sure took some crazy luck for me to
own this place," he says, referring to the WD. "When I look
at my career and think about how I got to where I am today and the way
it's all turned out, the Siete Loco pretty much says it all."
This crazy luck of Jones's, coupled with his considerable talents and
tenacious drive, has resulted in a life filled with an amazing series
of accomplishments and events, people, and places. As a teenager growing
up in West Texas, he won a scholarship to prestigious St. Mark's School
in Dallas where he first made a name for himself, playing football. He
went on to earn a scholarship to Harvard, won All-East honors as an offensive
lineman his senior year, and was in the trenches during one of the most
famous gridiron battles in college history: Harvard's 29-29 "win"
over Yale. Not only did the tie preserve the Crimson's first undefeated
season since 1920, but Harvard's 16 points in the final 42 seconds are
now the stuff of Ivy League legend. For the record, he is protectively
unforthcoming about his college roommate, Vice President Al Gore, or their
close friendship, which the two steadfastly maintain.
By the time we finish our two-hour chat and I leave the ranch office of
the WD, it's clear that no matter what talents the man has been given,
he's applied them to the fullestin his schooling, on the gridiron,
as an actor, and with his ranches. It's an ethic common to any cowboy
worth his salt, and Jones applies it not only to his work, but also to
his play. And when it comes time for Jones to play, he plays polo.
in his typical manner, Jones defies expectations and doesn't come to polo
in dress whites and a pique shirt. He may play against royals and captains
of industry, but he runs his polo operation, 50 horses and a team of players,
as firmly as his ranch. Jones learned polo the cowboy way, and he keeps
a close eye on expenses while working with different corporate sponsors
to offset costs. He firmly believes that cowboysand gauchos and
vaquerosembody the best aspects of the game of kings. Although it
may come across like another brag from a boastful Texan, those who know
the sport acknowledge that the greatest polo player who ever lived was
a Texas cowboy by the name of Cecil Smith. As luck would have it, Smith
grew up a little over 30 miles from Jones's hometown of San Saba, and
Jones was fortunate enough to become a close friend of Smith's, going
so far as to host ranch polo matches and family barbecues for Cecil and
Mary Smith, their family, and friends.
Today's match is not only a first for the WD, it marks the return of ranch
polo to the Big Bend country. No doubt the great 10-goaler would have
been proud of Jones, whose new field has no grandstands, no announcers,
and a gallery consisting of a couple of jack mules, a horned toad, and
some well-hidden varmints. There's no grass either. Jones respects his
neighbors too much to waste a well watering a polo field during this drouthy
time. His polo pitch is a skin field, scraped clear of cactus and catclaw
and playable only by talented horsemen with sure-footed mounts more accustomed
to hard scrabble than well-watered bent grass.
When Jones swings into the saddle, he's ready to play the sort of polo
Cecil Smith knew best. He's on board Academic, a home bred gelding off
of his San Saba ranch that worked cattle all morning long. Jones is wearing
his work clothesa long sleeve shirt, some Wranglers, his chinks,
a pair of custom boots from Rusty Franklin's in San Angelo, and the gal
leg spurs he commissioned for the role of Hewey Calloway in The
Good Old Boys. Palm Beach this is not.
Instead it's a duel in the desert as working cowboys and professional
polo players raise a cloud of dust so thick that play sometimes stops
to allow the fine dirt to settle and the ball to become visible once again.
Jones is in the middle of it allhe's an accomplished player and
carries a 2-goal ratingbut there are plenty of times when no one
can be picked out of the raucous group of stampeding Bedouins.
There's a sense of celebration once the three-team round robin concludes.
The Fence Post Pasture edged out the Horse Camp and the Javelina for top
honors, and they line up first at the chuck wagon for a hearty dinner
of fried steak and potatoes. Spring roundup is ready to wrap up, and no
one seems to mind that it's been a long hard day.
Luis Echezzerata goads his brother Laureano in to getting out his guitar,
and the native Argentine starts playing song after songa sad milonga
from the pampas, one from Colombia, another from Brazil. When Laureano
breaks into a lively chacarera, his older
brother jumps out into the middle of our circle of chairs and cuts loose
with a cross between a Russian saber dance and "The Cotton-Eyed Joe."
sits down to a round of applause, and Glenn Moreland, the camp cook, steps
out from behind the chuck wagon with a fiddle under his arm. As he plays
a few cowboy favorites"Old Paint Waltz" and "Ragtime
Annie"the soothing sounds of his fiddle seem to still the night.
Behind the fiddle player, on the horizon, the sun is soon to set over
the Sierra Vieja and the Wild Horse Mountains.
It's the perfect backdrop for the day's final scene. As Glenn begins to
play "Faded Love," the Bob Wills classic is positively mesmerizing.
No one says a word or makes a move. No one that is, except Tommy Lee,
who stands up after a few notes and offers his hand to his girl, Dawn.
The two met on the set of The Good Old Boys,
a TNT movie that Jones starred in and directed, and have been together
As if on cue, the sky lights up in an explosion of orange and amber and
indigo and magenta. And, as the lonely fiddle echoes out across the WD,
a rough and ready cowboy tenderly leads his partner around the dirt dance
floor. It's just like a movie. Only better.
P.S. The cowboy and his sweetheart dancing in
the dust? They got married the following year.
P.P.S. And the great photos that made this story ring true? Those were
all taken by Dawn.EOK