W. Earl Brown Reveals The Backstory Behind That Infamous 'Deadwood' Season 3 Fight [Interview]

For three seasons, W. Earl Brown played enforcer and bodyguard Dan Dority on Deadwood, while also serving as part of the writing staff. Brown returns to the role for the upcoming Deadwood: The Movie, hitting HBO this week. The actor spoke with /Film about his work on the original show, including the work that went into creating the famous fight scene from season 3. Brown also delved into the research he did for the part, and whether or not he had faith that the long-awaited movie would ever happen. Read our W. Earl Brown Deadwood interview below.

w. earl brownObviously, we all know now how respected and well-regarded Deadwood is. But when you first started on the show, did you think it would have the legacy it has today? Did you think – 

– we would be sitting around talking about it 17 years later? No, no. I mean, I knew the script was unlike anything I'd ever read. I certainly didn't know that it would be revered the way it has. I think when we got into production on the series that the saddle leather had broken in a little bit, and there was more of a comfort, like, "We really have something here."

But you never know what's going to hit and what's not going to hit. But [Deadwood's] my favorite thing I've ever been a part of. And the fact that we are sitting here...16 and a half years later and we're still talking about it... And I found that with other projects, with other stuff, something that I think this is going to be amazing – and then it kinda sucked. [And] there were films that I didn't think were anything special, and they were extraordinary, you know? Some of them became these, you know, huge, huge hits. I'm thinking of specifically Scream and There's Something About Mary. Neither of those movies [seemed like] anything special [to me] until they were done. And Deadwood seems to continue to grow and grow. Even after it ended, I was always running into people, thanks to the advent of streaming and that becoming people's viewing habits, I was always running in the new Deadwood fans.

deadwood a two-headed beastSo, I have to ask you about something I'm sure people bring up all the time: the big fight scene in the season three episode "A Two-Headed Beast", where Dan has that incredibly long, incredibly brutal fight with Captain Turner. What was the impetus of that – how did it all come together? And how long did it take to film?

Well I had written something....I was actor/writer on the show for seasons two and three. I mean...the Alpha and the Omega is David Milch. But you would pitch David ideas. He developed that, [and would] write some scenes, and then sometimes he would use it, sometimes wouldn't.

I had written, in season two, a story called "Son of a Bitch", which was based on something that actually happened in my family with my mother's first husband and with my grandfather. My grandfather wouldn't allow anyone to call him that word [son of a bitch]. And my mother's first husband said that to him, and he hit him so hard that his eyeball popped out of the skull. He almost killed the guy. Well, I wrote that for season two, [but] we never used it. It was one of those stories that was developed that never got used. [Ed. note: the unused scene in question involved Dan Dority fighting a character named Soapy].

Then in season three, as the [tension] was elevating between Hearst and Swearengen, Dave come to me and says "Where this eventually is going to lead is that you and [Hurt's] right hand man [Captain Turner] are going to be fighting to the death in the middle of the street. And everybody in town's going to see it. It's gonna look like you're going to die, but at the last second, we turn the tables and you're going to win." So that a got my fat ass on the treadmill every day because I knew we had a big fight coming up.

Dan Minahan, who directed the movie, was directing the episode with the fight. So Dave brought us together. We had three days of rehearsals. It was me, Mike Watson the stunt coordinator, Al Graf [who played] Captain Turner, and Minahan, and Milch brings us together and he says, "All right, you have three days to create this thing and camera block it. And I have three rules. Number one, I want everything completely realistic. I don't want any fucking cowboy fight cliches. No cowboys flying through plate glass. None of that bullshit. Number two, I want every time the audience thinks it's going to ebb, I want to fucking escalate. I want the audience not to be able to draw a fucking breath for five whole minutes. And number three, I want something I've never really seen before. So, make it up."

So we had those three days. We would rehearse for five or six hours, try stuff that wouldn't work, and Dave would come and watch. [And] Dave says, "I don't have a fucking end into this thing. How are we going to get the fuck out of this? Where we turn the tables, I was rereading that 'Son of a Bitch' stuff you wrote last year, but in that you're overpowering Soapy, and you're being overpowered in this scene. I don't know how the fuck we're going to get out of this."

And then we had an advisor on the show, who used to be an enforcer for...gambling interests in Vegas, let's put it that way. He was an old retired cowboy and he used to take people's eyeballs. That's what he did. [And] I thought we'd do that. [But Dave says] "That doesn't fucking work. Because you [have to be] overpowering him to be able to do that. I'm not sure how we're going get out of this fucking thing."

So I play poker with Jerry Cantrell, the musician from Alice in Chains, and I had a poker game than at night. Jerry is asking about it, and I tell them what we're shooting this fight and everything. And he goes, "Why don't you use what happened to my brother?" I said, "What?" He goes, "Dave [Cantrell] was in a biker bar in Oklahoma. He got in a fist fight [and] this biker guy had him on the pool table by the ears and he's cracking his skull..and [Dave] said, just in desperation, he tried to push the guy off of him. He felt his finger hit soft tissue and knew without seeing it, that it was an eyeball. So he jammed his finger and pull the guy's eyeball out and Dave lived."

So I go to work the next day, to David Milch, and went, "David, David, David I've got an ending!" And that was our ending. So it took two days to film, three days to rehearse. That's five minutes of screen time. And not a single word of dialogue is spoken.

deadwood dan fightWhat was it like seeing it all cut together?

There's a footnote to go with that. I grew up with ZZ Top's poster on my wall. I got to know them because they were fans of Deadwood. I invited them out; they're...in the last episode, the guys leading the march into town, you look really closely with the guys at the front of that crowd are Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. They were on set when David goes, "You have to see this fellas, you gotta come, see." And he took me and Dusty and Billy to the editing room and showed us the fight cut together. And that's when I knew like, "Oh my God, this is something nobody's seen before." And I'm sitting here watching it with two guys whose poster I had on my wall. So it was kind of a double pinch me moment.

deadwood danDan Doherty [different spelling intentional] was a real guy, but I don't know how well-known he was to most people before Deadwood. If you did research for the character, did his obscurity get in the way of the research?

Well, after season one, I went to Deadwood, three different times – the actual Deadwood. And Jerry Bryant, who was a research assistant, was just a godsend. He and I...he did a lot of the preliminary work, but we went back and I saw it census logs. I saw a lot of newspaper articles about the real Doherty. So I found out the truth of the real guy. Ours was a fictionalized version, but...his father actually came [to Deadwood] first. His dad was [part] of the initial gold rush to that area. And then Dan followed a couple of months later – he was married and had kids. And he moved his family out there. I found an article in the paper where his wife was robbed. She was robbed at gunpoint, and then she took the kids and went back east. She hated it. His dad left, and Doherty refused to go. He ended up becoming a very successful business guy in his own right. He owned the brewery in Spearfish, and he had all the beer contracts. And that's seeded. If you watch the show, there's things where Al says to Da, "Now, Dan, when you have a place of your own, what you have to understand..." So that stuff is seeded in the series, because Doherty eventually own the Bella Union Saloon. [And] he was murdered in 1888.

deadwood movie w. earl brownI'm a huge fan of the show, and for years, I hoped the fabled movie would happen. But I had sort of accepted, after a while, that it was not to be. Did you ever get to a point where you felt like that? Or did you always have faith it would happen? 

I gave up beating the dead horse after a few years. At first I couldn't believe it and I couldn't accept it. And, and as I've said, "All the horses are out of the barn, but I grew up on a farm in Kentucky, goddamit. I can get the horses back in the barn because I've done it many times." So I was the one trying to keep track of who was doing what so that when the time came, I'd know everybody's availability and everybody's place. It took me a few years to let go of that. And when the fiasco of Luck [another show created by David Milch] happened, Dave was still trying to make those two [Deadwood] movies. He had circled back around to that offer and he and I had lunch and talked about it. We actually had lunch twice to discuss it. And when that fell by the wayside, that's when I gave up. I'm like, "It'll never happen. Never." So it was such a pleasant surprise a few years ago when the wheels started to turn again and I said, hey, dead horses can kick their way out of a grave...or so I found out.


All three seasons of Deadwood are now streaming on HBO Now. Deadwood: The Movie premieres on HBO May 31. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.