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December 05, 1993|JOANNE HARRISON | Joanne Harrison is a free-lance writer based in Texas

PIMA COUNTY, ARIZ. — The wind is picking up, but it brings no relief. Dust devils--tiny tornadoes--dance across the desert floor and disappear among the pinon and the cactus. Carrion birds circle, hopefully, in the middle distance.

Here on the set of "Geronimo," a movie made for TNT, it's over 120 degrees, a record even for the exurbs of Tucson, Ariz., in August.

On a parched dirt road inside the Lazy K Bar ranch, the Northwest Fire District paramedics are sitting in the shadow of their truck waiting for the next extra to collapse with heatstroke. They've had a fair amount of business already and it's still well before noon. A couple of black plastic tubs the size of kiddie pools stand ready for emergency dunkings and a blue-and-white striped plastic canopy shades one prone woman who's already out for the count.

Just up the rocky embankment, dozens of extras, Native American men, women and kids dressed in heavy winter buckskins, are tending smoky myrrh-enhanced campfires while nearby historical re-enactors playing the Mexican army (in full, navy-blue wool uniforms) prepare to invade the camp. The scene is crucial and small things keep going wrong. An atmosphere dog limps off, yelping--a thorn in its paw. The army cannot wheel around properly because of the cactus. Kid extras have to be taken on bathroom breaks.

Los Angeles Times Sunday December 19, 1993 Home Edition TV Times Page 7 Television Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Ryan Black, who plays the young Geronimo in the TNT movie "Geronimo," was misidentified in a caption in the Dec. 5 issue of TV Times.

And it just keeps getting hotter.

Kimberly Norris doesn't care. For the young actress this is more than just a big break; it's a very special experience. She sits in the shade created by a traditional wickiup. With the breeze coming through the woven branches, the circular hut is surprisingly cool.

"I'm sure that for all involved, this is more than just a job, it's a spiritual endeavor," says Norris, a descendant of Chief Seattle. Norris plays Geronimo's second wife.

"It's an effort to reach back into our history, and to understand what happened, why it happened, to regain some of the humanity that history--at least history in the form that it's taught--has taken away from us.

"That's what we're trying to do here with this story. We want to show people that we fell in love; we were heartbroken; we loved and lost; we whined and complained every once in a while--and that there are eternal truths that exist in all societies. Indian people are just human beings. So we're here setting some falsehoods straight."

Among them is the image of Geronimo, the Apache war chief, as nothing but a fierce fighter. In this film the young man, whose real name was GO-Khla-Yeh--his Mexican opponents mistakenly called him Geronimo--is devoted to his family. In 1858, he migrates with his tribe to winter as usual in Sonora, Mex. With him are his wife, Alope, his three small children and his widowed mother. All except Geronimo would be slaughtered by troopers. This is not the usual cowboys and Indians version.

Chris Cook, executive producer for Norman Jewison's Yorktown Productions, says that "TNT spent a lot of time deciding which projects they wanted to do, and one of them was Geronimo's early years. We wanted to focus on why the man became the man he became and what happened in his younger years that affected him so."

Ryan Black, 20, an Ojibway from Winnipeg, Manitoba, plays that young Geronimo. He has no theatrical experience, has worked only as an extra in one Canadian Broadcasting Co. TV production, but caught the eye of a casting director. "To go from the Canadian production to playing Geronimo as a young man is like jumping the Grand Canyon"--he pauses for effect and flashes a killer smile--"on a skateboard."

"This is something I've always wanted to do. I never knew I was brown until I was 18--there are 50,000 native people in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and one day I just realized I was one of them, that this was my life."

For Joseph Runningfox, a full-blooded Pueblo who plays the adult Geronimo, the film is a special opportunity. He won the role in an audition. "In a sense, I'd been preparing for something like this for years, going within the interior. If it weren't for Geronimo's being in tune with his own immortality, the thing that changed him completely, I think the Apache might have been wiped out. This is a very loving and caring person, but at the same time, he has the toughness that enabled him to save his people."

Director Roger Young agrees. "This is the story of a real man. All of us use his name and none of us know anything about him. Geronimo was a man on a mission to avenge his people and that mission was from God. This is not something Western culture understands very well.

"When they sent me the script and I read it, I said, 'I have to do this.' There's just one moment of drama after another and every one of them is honest and real. When you have a story that's both dramatic and filled with new information you almost can't help but fascinate the audience.

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