Katharine Ross knows who really won the West: the women.
"The men were the dreamers," she was explaining over a lunch of soft-shell crabs at a fashionable Santa Monica restaurant.
"The men went West, but it was the women who kept things together, no matter the situation. It was hard. They made an effort to have a house, bring up the children under incredible hardships and were able to draw on reserves of strength which they didn't know they had."
Ross, a Los Angeles native, grew up loving Westerns. "I felt a kind of kinship," she said. "I have been fascinated with survival and having to go on no matter what. That always appealed to me."
And during her nearly 30-year-career, Ross has appeared in numerous sagebrush tales, including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here."
The actress said she has long wanted to pay tribute to the unsung heroines of the Wild West. She finally gets the opportunity in TNT's film of Louis L'Amour's "Conagher," premiering Monday.
Ross plays Evie Teale, an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances when she accompanies her husband and his two children to the Great Plains to start a cattle ranch. When her husband is killed in a tragic accident, Evie must draw on her reserves of strength. She allows the cabin to become a temporary rest stop for the stagecoach passengers. She learns how to fight Indians.
And to combat loneliness, she writes her feelings on small scraps of paper and ties them to tumbleweeds. One cowboy who reads these notes is Conn Conagher (Ross' husband Sam Elliott), a tough but honest cowpoke who frequently stops by the Teale ranch.
Besides starring together in "Conagher," Ross and Elliott co-wrote the screenplay, and Elliott also wore the executive producer's hat.
Ross and Elliott have collaborated on other screenplays, but none ever made it into production. "We really enjoy collaborating," she said, smiling. "We have very definite feelings about this particular project. We really wanted to remain true to Louis' novel and to do that story."
A friend, Jeffrey Meyer, wrote the first screenplay for "Conagher." "We worked on it from there and did two or three drafts," Ross said. "We sit around and talk about the script. Sam likes to write everything out in long hand. And then we read it back and forth and if we get stuck, we just go on. It's a great sort of exchange of ideas and thoughts. It's a honing-down process."
Ross said she and Elliott wanted "Conagher" to be a romantic Western in the John Ford tradition. "It's a simple classic story," she said. "It is also a family movie. It shouldn't be graphically violent. We had definite thoughts about the material. We wanted children to be able to look at this and not have parents go ugh. " (Ross and Elliott have a 6-year-old daughter, Cleo.)
Ross also had definite ideas about Evie. "In the book, her section was very internal," Ross said. "So we had to create dialogue and scenes that are indicated in the book, but are more of a thought process. I felt that she was very much--and I don't want to sound pretentious-- the pioneer woman.
"I wanted this element of her being an Everywoman who had to deal with life," Ross said. "I wanted very much to show this progression of this woman who was not totally prepared for what she would be facing and then you kind of see her get stronger and stronger. She realizes she can do it. I wanted to put everything into her."
"Conagher" marks the seventh film Ross and Elliott have made together. Both appeared in 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," although the two never met. They fell in love during the filming of the 1978 thriller "The Legacy."
"We like working together," Ross said. "Working together is easier than real life. Somehow we are able to transcend all pettiness. Both of us try to be very professional and somehow, working has always worked well for us. It's life that has its ups and downs."
Ross was a struggling young theater actress in San Francisco when she landed a guest shot on a TV show filming in the Bay Area. "Having that piece of film, I kept getting TV shows." And eventually movies. Ross made her film debut in the 1965 James Stewart Civil War drama "Shenandoah." The director, Andrew V. McLaglen, had worked with Ross on a "Bonanza" episode and requested she do the movie.
"I went under contract with Universal after that," she said. "My big thing for my first contract was that they couldn't put me in a TV series. I already had a movie under my belt and done some episodic TV, so it worked nicely."
She credits Simone Signoret for helping her land her Oscar-nominated role of Elaine Robinson in 1967's "The Graduate." The late French actress befriended Ross while they were making the thriller "Games." It was Signoret who put in a good word with "Graduate" director Mike Nichols.