The real Deadwood

Peter Fish explores the South Dakota town made famous by the hit TV show

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  • Fiction meets fact: Timothy Olyphant's character Seth Bullock takes aim in a back-lot Deadwood bar.

    Filming in Deadwood

    Doug Hyun courtesy of HBO

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What's remarkable about Deadwood is how fast those icons were made. Wild Bill was famous when he first arrived in Deadwood; when he was gunned down three weeks later in Saloon No. 10, he rose to legend. Likewise, Calamity Jane almost immediately became a hot topic of the dime novel ― the HBO series of its day. More than riches, Deadwood granted fame.

Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were among the stories Milch had to work with. But the power of Deadwood comes less from the characters you've heard about before than from the ones you haven't ― above all, from Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen, both drawn from real life. A former Montana Territorial senator, Bullock represents (if somewhat shakily) progress, order, civilization. Against him plots Swearengen, proprietor of the sordid Gem Theater and crime lord. As played by Ian McShane, Swearengen is a character the equal of Hannibal Lecter or Richard III: villainy raised to high art.

From its first episode, Deadwood created a panorama of the American West not seen before on television: violent, grim, funny, exceedingly profane, and willing to ponder the big questions. "What I love about the show is that it's not a western," Kopco says. "It's about society. And how it forms. Do we want law? Do we not want law? It's a quandary."

Deadwood's blessing

Certainly, it can be a quandary, figuring out how a historic Western town can survive. Ask any resident of Cripple Creek, Colorado, or Tombstone, Arizona, or Lincoln, New Mexico. Once the mines play out and the cattle boom passes, you're left with rickety old buildings, lurid stories, and not much else.

Deadwood's true glory days arrived after the era that the series covers. Mining baron George Hearst ― seen skulking around town this season ― acquired the Homestake Mine, eventually the deepest gold mine in the Western hemisphere. It was the Homestake's wealth that built the ornate, mostly brick Deadwood you see today, and kept the town prosperous for much of the 20th century.

But by the late 1980s, the Homestake was on the verge of closing. "We had crumbling façades, boarded-up storefronts, no jobs," says advertising executive and Deadwood Magazine publisher Tom Griffith. The town turned to gaming, becoming the third venue in the nation (after Las Vegas and Atlantic City) to offer legalized gambling ― blazing a trail that would be followed by Cripple Creek and other Western towns. But today, with competition from Indian casinos and Internet gambling, even slot machines aren't the sure bet they once were.

Which is why Deadwood was and is such a blessing. "You know that saying about everybody getting their 15 minutes of fame?" Griffith asks. "Well, Deadwood is getting 60 minutes a week. We're seen in England, in France, in Brazil." Once the show premiered, hits on the Adams Museum website went from a few thousand to 6.6 million per month. Tourists stroll down Main Street, searching out landmarks like the Bullock Hotel (still in business) and the Gem Theater (no longer standing).



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