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Picking Up Ned Blessing's Trail : CBS GOES WEST WITH A SERIES RESURRECTED AND AN ACTOR WHO CAN RIDE

August 15, 1993|JANE SUMNER | Jane Sumner covers film and television for the Dallas Morning News

Spicewood, Tex. — Ned Blessing is back from Boot Hill. CBS buried the Western series last year after its introductory episode starring Daniel Baldwin sprawled in the dust. Underpromoted and up against stiff competition, it left critics slightly benumbed.

Now the rascally Ned, conceived by Austin, Tex., screenwriter Bill Wittliff, returns--reworked and reborn with real-life cowboy hunk-turned-actor Brad Johnson in the lead.

Ned's creator says it was his passion for the project that caused CBS to give it another try. Wittliff has a saddlebag of screen credits, including "The Black Stallion," "Country" and "Raggedy Man," but he's best known in TV circles as the writer who tamed Larry McMurtry's sweeping epic "Lonesome Dove" into a seven-Emmy classic.

Among its cast and crew, Wittliff is doubly revered as the ramrod who kept the arduous shoot on the trail and refereed Robert Duvall's rocky relationship with director Simon Wincer.

Drawn by fierce loyalty to Wittliff and the literary quality of his scripts, some of "Lonesome Dove's" key talents reconvened to create the original Ned, then returned to resurrect him.

Those F.O.B.s (Friends of Bill's) include veteran character actor Tim (Pea Eye) Scott, Emmy-nominated production designer Cary White and Emmy-winning costume designer Van Ramsey. New to the ensemble is Cherokee actor Wes Studi, the evil Magua in "The Last of the Mohicans."

When last we saw Ned in his April '92 kickoff, he was sheriff of Plum Creek, Tex., bent on pursuing the scum who killed his father in a bank robbery.

"Because this is a summer series and the money is much different, we couldn't take Ned to a different place each week," Wittliff says. "This batch takes place before then."

As a boy, Ned was captured by Camancheros, who beat his father and left him for dead. They used Ned as a slave and taught him how to steal. He became known as the Nino Ladron (the Boy Bandit). But when another captive, Crescenzio, has a vision that Ned's father is alive, he runs away to try to find him. And that's where the new series picks up his trail.

It's no secret that the original Ned was no great shakes as a horseman.

In Ned's second coming, newcomer Rusty Schimmer plays his nasty nemesis Big Emma. On screen or off, the actress, a former member of Chicago Bear William Perry's personal cheerleader squad, The Refrigerettes, gets right to the point.

"Dan Baldwin is not a cowboy," she says. "Johnson is a real hero. When I first saw him on a horse, I thought, 'Great stunt guy!' When he came stampeding down the street, I yelled, 'Hey! Thats Brad."

And while Johnson was always the first choice to play Ned, it was a long time before the son of a professional horse trainer knew it.

"I did a movie called 'Always' for Steven Spielberg," says Johnson, who peppers his speech with "yes, ma'ams" and "yes, sirs." "And after Steven read 18 short stories that Bill Wittliff had written about a character named Ned Blessing, he called him and said he wanted to make at least two pictures about Ned with the kid he used in 'Always.' "

Then Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts all became available, and Spielberg turned his attentions to "Hook" and afterward to his computerized wrinkle in time, "Jurassic Park."

"So Bill took it to CBS," Johnson says. "The network called my then-agent who told them I didn't do television. They gave him the script, and it sat on his desk for three days. He said I'd passed on it, but I never saw it. I never even heard of it."

Later, Johnson ran into CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky, who expressed regret that the actor had turned down Ned Blessing. "What's Ned Blessing?," Johnson asked.

After shooting six episodes he knows. "Ned Blessing is the role of a lifetime," says the actor, who rides his own 6-year-old sorrel named Hot Tub in the show.

"He's a horse that I roped on competitively. I never thought in a million years he'd make a picture horse because he's a little spooky and a little broncy. But he's settled into being a movie horse, and he really likes it."

Unlike the army of livestock he helped herd for "Lonesome Dove," Ned Blessing boss wrangle David Little only has 20 horses, "an old cow," a calf, two turkeys and two pigs.

"Pigs are great," says Little. "You can train a pig in two weeks. Pigs are smart, a lot smarter than a dog."

"On 'Lonesome Dove,' the audience--even my mom--forgot all of us and remembered the pigs," the cowboy says. "And, yes, it helps to have a lead who knows his way around horses," adds Little, who tried to find mounts that typify the period.

"None of the pictures I've seen from the late 1800s have cowboys with big shiny quarter horses. They're all thinner, old skinny-necked things that nobody wants. And we have some that look like that."

Little estimates that only about 10% of the audience will know the difference. "But for the cowboys out there watching, I'd like it to look right. Van (Ramsey) works very hard to keep wardrobe up, and we try to hold up our end."

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