25 Surprising Facts About Deadwood
David Milch's Deadwood, which premiered on HBO in 2004, earned critical praise, launched careers, and won a devoted fan following over its three seasons. While admirers of the dark Western crime drama have long lamented its too-short run on television, they got a second dose of the series with 2019's Deadwood: The Movie.
We're celebrating this stellar series with these behind-the-scenes details that will deepen your appreciation of all things Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen.
1. Deadwood was shot on a famous ranch.
Much of the series was shot on the sets of Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita Valley, California. Established in 1915, this location has been the backdrop to a long legacy of Westerns. Television shows like Gunsmoke, The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, and Have Gun—Will Travel lensed there, as did movies like High Noon, The Gunfighter, and Django Unchained.
2. The series was based on the real Deadwood, South Dakota.
In the 1870s, Deadwood, South Dakota was a place full of criminals and entrepreneurs. Series creator David Milch rigorously researched the real Deadwood by reading its newspapers, the diaries of its residents, and formal historical accounts like Black Hills expert Watson Parker's Deadwood: The Golden Years.
3. Many of the series' characters are real people.
Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane might have been Deadwood's most famous residents, but Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Sol Star, E.B. Farnum, A.W. Merrick, Charlie Utter, and George Hearst were all real people with noted moments in history, too. However, characters like Trixie, Whitney Ellsworth, and Alma Garret were largely fictional, based more on archetypes of people who would've had a place in Deadwood.
4. The real Seth Bullock was called a "bad man with a gun."
As in the show, Seth Bullock came to Deadwood with his friend Sol Star to open a hardware store. He invested in the community, headed health care boards, and became the town's first sheriff. That last vocation earned him the aforementioned reputation, which endeared him to Theodore Roosevelt, whom Bullock later successfully helped campaign for the presidency of the United States. The Chicago Tribune later ran a delightful description of Bullock: "Bullock attracted general attention around the White House today. He has a fierce looking melodrama-villain's mustache and wears a sombrero."
5. The real Al Swearengen was no romantic anti-hero.
In Deadwood, Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is a pimp, crook, and murderer, but he is also the protector of the "crippled" Jewel and grimly civic-minded. The real Swearengen was much less admirable. He was a sex trafficker, tricking women into coming to Deadwood to work in his various business ventures—like a theater—but then forcing them into prostitution. His wife publicly accused him of domestic abuse. Eventually, he was run out of Deadwood and died of a massive head wound that was either caused by a fall from a failed leap onto a freight train or a willful act of murder.
6. David Milch didn't want Ian McShane to audition for the role of Al Swearengen.
Milch was convinced Ian McShane would be miscast as Swearengen. In Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, he recalls, "Physically, Ian was absolutely wrong for the part. I didn't even want to read him. I had imagined Swearengen as a physically imposing specimen. But when Ian came in, he neutralized all of that, because he had Swearengen's essence, which was fierce matter-of-factness. He was who he was, unadulterated."
7. The real George Hearst was a working-class hero.
George Hearst (who is played by Gerald McRaney in the series) was a self-made man who had a real gift for mining gold. The series painted him as a robber baron whose gold lust threatened Deadwood's existence. But there was much more to Hearst. He was raised on his parents' farm in Franklin County, Missouri, but left their homestead to join the Gold Rush in 1850. He made his first million in the Comstock Lode in Nevada, and after his dealings in Deadwood, he went on to become a senator.
Described as a "plain old Missourian, of small education and no polish of manners" by Cosmopolitan in 1888, Hearst purchased The San Francisco Daily Examiner in 1880, and a new family business was born seven years later when he handed the reins to his only son, William Randolph Hearst.
8. Calamity Jane really did care for the sick.
In season one, smallpox hits Deadwood and Doc and Jane see to the afflicted. This generous action has been historically documented, along with Jane's trademark rough-and-tumble appearance. In Estelline Bennett's Old Deadwood Days, she paints a picture of Calamity Jane (a.k.a. Martha Canary):
"She was a plain woman, looking older than she really was. She wore a dark cloth coat that never had been good, a cheap little hat, a faded frayed skirt and arctic overshoes … She came unscathed through the long smallpox siege and most of her patients lived. Dr. Babcock believed that without her care not one of them would have pulled through."
9. Calamity Jane and Wild Bill weren't really that close.
It's suspected that their connection has been conflated over the years as a part of the blossoming tall tales of the Old West. The pair did come to Deadwood together, but hadn't known each other long before that. However, in her memoir, Jane did describe him as a friend. And the two, who died nearly 30 years apart, were buried beside each other in Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery.
10. General Samuel Fields was a Deadwood celebrity.
As actor Franklyn Ajaye did in the series, General Samuel Fields proudly called himself "The N****r General." He was a notable presence in the camp not only for his claims of being a Union Army general, but also for his flamboyant personality. This made him a recurring figure in the local newspapers like the Black Hills Pioneer, where he was described as "irrepressible, duplicatory, candescent," "the 'slycoon' senegambian," and "The Shakespearian Darkey." He was also an outspoken activist for the African-American community of Deadwood.
11. St. Paul inspired Reverend Smith's epilepsy plot line.
It was the tragic end of Deadwood preacher Reverend Henry Weston Smith (played by Ray McKinnon) that earned the notice of Milch. Though he was fond of saying The Bible was his protection, Smith was murdered making his way from Deadwood to a neighboring town to preach. The sermon found with his remains was "Upon Whose Life We Shall Base Ours, Upon Whom Better Than the Great Sinner Paul."
As Milch had suspected, St. Paul might have been a sufferer of temporal-lobe epilepsy. He decided to blend this element into Smith's Deadwood counterpart, leading to a different demise (in this case: mercy killing at the hands of Swearengen).
12. If the series hadn't been canceled, The Gem would have burned down.
Assuming Milch continued to follow the path the real Swearengen blazed, then his beloved saloon would be burned down—likely by one of the whoremonger's many enemies. But you can't keep Al down. In real life, Swearengen rebuilt it bigger and better than before, and it stood for another 20 years … until someone burned it down again.
13. The origin of Trixie's name came from an old crime report.
In the first episode, we meet Trixie (Paula Malcomson) after she shoots a john in self-defense. This is a nod to the inspiration for her name. In John S. McClintock's memoir, Pioneer Days Of The Black Hills, he recounts, "I beheld a man lying on the floor with a bullet hole clear through his head back of his eyes. The woman 'Tricksie' grabbed a pistol while he was beating her and turned the tables on him."
In another Deadwood nod to true life, Doc Cochran responds to the corpse just as the doctor who arrived on the scene did. He "ran a probe through his head" to inspect the damage to the brain.
14. Paula Malcomson may have saved Trixie's life.
Over the seasons, Trixie the whore became an indelible part of Deadwood and the makeup of its titular town. But early on, the actress who played her feared her stint on the series would be short-lived. According to Malcomson, this all changed with "Reconnoitering the Rim," in which Trixie shaves the calluses off of Al's feet with a straight razor.
The scene was originally set with the two in bed, but Malcomson suggested the foot shaving business—something her father used to do for her grandfather—would give the pair's relationship a greater sense of depth and intimacy. She improvised the line, "Shall I do the other foot?" And McShane replied, "Please." She recalls, "The minute he said, 'Please,' I knew it was a new place for us." And Trixie was preserved.
15. Sol and Trixie would never have married.
Though Sol Star became a celebrated and respected leader in the Deadwood community—first as a businessman, then as its mayor—he never did get married, even after traveling East in search of a bride. All the same, it seems he was too well liked to ever be lonely.
In 1901's The Great Northwest and Its Men of Progress, he was described thusly:
"Some men have a genius for popularity. With no effort on their part they become a sort of social or political center from which there seems to radiate an aroma of good fellowship, permeating the entire community. Frank and generous; genial in disposition; ever ready with a helping hand for a fellow in distress; jovial and social, yet, in serious matters keen and penetrating; sound in judgment; full of resources in emergency; energy unbounded, and a public spirit ready for war in the interests of his town, country, or state. These are some of the characteristics of a naturally popular man."
16. David Milch was determined to get Garret Dillahunt on Deadwood.
Maybe you noticed Dillahunt played both Wild Bill's crop-eared killer James McCall as well as the kinky and sadistic geologist Francis Wolcott. But his road to Deadwood was paved with false starts. Dillahunt initially auditioned for the role of Seth Bullock, then Doc Cochran, before being cast as McCall. After the rogue fled Deadwood for good in season 1, Milch decided to bring Dillahunt back in season 2. First Milch considered him for the role of Hearst, but ultimately chose him to play Wolcott, minus the prosthetics that marred his appearance in season 1.
17. Before Deadwood, David Milch pitched HBO a series about Nero's Rome.
Unbeknownst to Milch, HBO had already green-lit Rome. Milch believed his fascination with how society can form from chaos could be explored in another historical setting, so he set his sights on the Black Hills of the Old West.
18. The unifier of Deadwood (and America) is gold.
How do you transform chaos into society? According to Milch, mankind does so by rallying around a "totem of the leader." For Deadwood, that totem is gold. Those who have it rule those who want it. "Agreeing on this single symbol of value has allowed us to organize our individual energies on a wider scale," he has explained. As the place where the last of the great gold strikes occurred, Deadwood seemed the perfect place to show how gold and our accepted value of it could forge a civilization.
19. Though many of Deadwood's curse words may be anachronistic, cursing itself was not.
Milch was dedicated to getting the tone of the Black Hills right. It was a dangerous and gruff place where men toiled, fought, and cursed. But the curse words of the 1870s would seem downright laughable today, even with the glowering Ian McShane delivering them. So "tarnation" and "goldarn" were swapped out for contemporary cursing's heavy hitters, even though the f-word didn't come into popularity until the 1920s.
20. A lot of F-bombs were dropped—but not as many per minute as The Wolf of Wall Street had.
Along with being praised for being an impeccably written show with outstanding performances, Deadwood earned attention for its aggressive use of the f-word. According to one dedicated viewer, the entire series clocked in with 2980 uses of the word. While that beats out Martin Scorsese's curse-laden white-collar crime drama's 569 uses, The Wolf of Wall Street wins when you break it down by uses-per-minute, boasting 3.16 to Deadwood's 1.56.
21. Timothy Olyphant's mom was not a fan of the series.
When her son was first cast as Deadwood's reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock, Mrs. Olyphant was thrilled her boy would be in a Western. Then she saw the first episode and was turned off by all the violence and coarse language. "I told all the ladies at church you were finally gonna be in something they could watch," she told Olyphant, "and now I've got to call them all back."
22. W. Earl Brown found his inspiration for Dan Dority close to home.
Deadwood's Dan Dority is Swearengen's right-hand man in many respects. The same was true in real life, where both Dority and Johnny Burns worked as general manager and floor manager of Swearengen's saloon. But in his portrayal of Dan, Brown found inspiration in his uncle.
"He doesn't like to hear it," Brown confessed, "but I tell him, 'I get up there and I pretend I'm you.'" As a tough Kentuckian with a past full of fights, his uncle proved a great starting point for the character. From there, Brown considers Dan "an animal walking upright" until he met Swearengen, who gave him a path and a home in Deadwood.
23. A Bella Union Babe sinks into the tub in the opening credits.
Though we never saw her face, Badass Digest uncovered the identity of this beautiful bather. Bethalyn Staples was one of 20 actresses cast as background extras to play the prostitutes of the Gem and The Bella Union. Staples was selected for Cy's Bella Union. But after production wrapped on season one, she was called back for some second unit shoots for the opening credits.
"I had no idea that I was going to be getting into a bathtub until just before we set up the shot," she said. "It was as no-frills as it gets. They literally set a garden hose out in the sun to get warm so that the water wouldn't be cold when I got into the tub in a barn. We shot the scene in a hurry because we were losing the natural light that was shining through the window. My directions were probably the easiest I've ever received. Simply, sink into the tub as slowly as you can while still making it look natural. A few takes and that was it. When the series debuted, I was astonished by how gorgeous it looked."
24. David Milch rejected HBO's offer for a fourth season.
Deadwood fans reeled when news of the show's cancelation came just ahead of its season three premiere in the spring of 2006. Common speculation has laid the blame at the feet of Milch's then-greenlit John From Cincinnati; however, Milch himself admitted HBO offered a six-episode order for season four. But he turned it down, saying, "For my part, I did not want to accept a short order. We couldn’t have done the work the way we wanted. I didn’t want to limp home. My old man used to say, ‘Never go anyplace where you’re only tolerated.’”
25. Deadwood rose again in 2019.
Not long after Deadwood's finale aired, rumors of movie specials that would tie up the loose threads left behind by season three popped up. But hope for a long-awaited and craved finale dwindled to dust as time passed, especially in 2009, when McShane told The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, "No hope. That's dead." Milch confirmed this sad news himself in 2012, admitting, "We got really close about a year ago. Never say never, but it doesn’t look that way."
But in early 2017, reports began to surface that Milch was working on a script for a Deadwood movie. In April of that year, a number of outlets began reporting that Milch had finished the script and turned it in to HBO. McShane, too, confirmed the news, telling TVLine that a “two-hour movie script has been delivered to HBO. If they don’t deliver [a finished product], blame them.”
In 2018, HBO officially confirmed that the movie was a go. Deadwood: The Movie premiered on May 31, 2019.
This article has been updated for 2019.