Taylor Sheridan On How The Harrison Ford-Helen Mirren Ratings Record Setter ‘1923’ Came After Network’s Shocking Realization The Cast Of Freshly Renewed ‘1883’ Was Dead

EXCLUSIVE: If the record launch-episode ratings of 1923 reveals anything, it is that viewing audiences on both Paramount+ and the Paramount Network have an endless appetite for Taylor Sheridan’s frontier tales of the Duttons and their Yellowstone ranch. Headlined by Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren and featuring a coterie of stars in waiting, 1923 is an epic production that Sheridan estimates had to be one of the highest per-episode investments ever made on a series, $22 million a pop.

After Sheridan and his EP and 101 Studios CEO David Glasser invited me to a different ranch a couple years back to watch 1883 shoot scenes and view the in-progress first episode (we ended up viewing four), Sheridan invited me back to see the first two 1923 eps. This time at “The Big House,” the place he rests his head most nights now. It is the headquarters of 6666, the historic West Texas ranch bought for a reported $320 million early this year by Sheridan, 101 Studios, Ron Burkle, fellow rancher Kit Moncrief and a few others. They’ve got grand plans to monetize and make the 6666 moniker as indelible in direct-to-consumer cuts of beef and lifestyle merchandise, as are the brands you spot on the hides of the cattle grazing on much of the 266,000-plus acres of a ranch that employs and houses 60+ cowboys and support staff, and 15,000 animals. Three U.S. presidents have stayed at The Big House since the ranch was established in 1870, on a site chosen by the Comanche tribe chief Quanah.

There are reminders of cowboys past all over the place. Last week, the place was filled with Sheridan’s good friends, many of whom are or were cowboys. Spend any time with them, or with Sheridan and his wife Nicole (she kept Sheridan’s spirits up when he quit Sons of Anarchy and pounded out the Sicario and Hell or High Water scripts in a remarkably short time) and you see why the prolific show creator bristles so much when his work and the lifestyle it depicts gets marginalized by the lazy and polarizing Red State characterization. The visitors were there for a Christmas party for ranch cowboys and their families, where it looked like every kid walked away with a gift. The guests included Red Steagall, an actor/musician/TV & radio personality considered the poet laureate of cowboy tradition. These people are simple, friendly, and grateful to be there. The key to this culture, Steagall said, is captured in a poem by Maya Angelou, which basically goes that it isn’t as important what you say to someone as it is how they remember you making them feel when you said it. Here, everyone looks you in the eye, shakes your hand with a firm grip, and answers truthfully.  

That includes Sheridan, though there is edge to him also. You wonder how he can write all these series – the Sly Stallone series Tulsa King he has largely left to others like Terry Winter, but he wrote every word of 1923 as he did 1883, and still writes Yellowstone, and teams with Hugh Dillon on Mayor of Kingstown. Plus, the Nicole Kidman-Zoe Saldana series Lioness has about finished its first season, and upcoming productions that will shoot on 6666 grounds include the David Oyelowo-starrer Bass Reeves, much of the next Yellowstone season, and Land Man to star Billy Bob Thornton. Some of Taylor’s inspiration comes from the memory of slights past, and proving doubters wrong. On top of all those series, Sheridan is also kicking around two more Dutton family limited series, reflecting life on the Montana ranch in the 1940s and 1960s.

Running a ranch, herding cattle, and breeding/training/showing elite horses provides a feeder system for his storytelling as creative problems sort themselves in his head while he is doing cowboy things. But also motivating is the lingering memory of slights Sheridan endured when he scratched a living from low-on-the-call-sheet acting jobs, and taught acting to make ends meet. Among his inspirations is the memory of that biz affairs exec whose cutting assessment of Sheridan’s place in the actor food chain that accompanied a refusal to raise his salary on Sons of Anarchy prompted Sheridan to quit acting and start writing.

Sheridan also remembers those who rejected him with grace. He counts in that category former HBO production chief Mike Lombardo. Sheridan told me he wrote the Yellowstone pilot script for HBO, and when Lombardo somewhat dismissively told him it would need Robert Redford as the ranch patriarch to have a chance, Sheridan went and got the actor to commit. Lombardo then said he meant an actor like Redford. The script languished and it finally became clear that Yellowstone didn’t reflect HBO sensibilities. A day before Lombardo was exited, Sheridan said the exec allowed him to take back the Yellowstone property. The rest is TV history.

This will be the first of three Deadline installments to run during the holidays, and here, Sheridan discusses the inspiration for 1923, and how much freedom he has gotten from Paramount Global to re-create periods of the frontier life.

DEADLINE: For your first Yellowstone spinoff 1883, you got Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and audiences would be watching and up pops Tom Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Rita Wilson in small roles. Harrison Ford had never done a TV series like this one, and while Helen Mirren did the Prime Suspect miniseries, this is audacious casting. How did you get them?

SHERIDAN: Truth? I called him and said come down to my ranch and he flew down. I did the same with Helen.

DEADLINE: He flew down on his own plane?

SHERIDAN: Yeah. He flew down. I said, we’re going to do this thing together. He goes, can I read a script? I said, you can when it’s written, but it ain’t written yet and you got to commit to it now. I need to know who I’m writing for. I’m done wondering who I’m writing for, and I have to go try to chase the person I had in my mind and I can’t get the person because they’re doing some fu*king Netflix show. I don’t do that shit anymore.

So, are you going to do it or are you going to watch Chris Cooper do the next great thing? What do you want to do? I poured about two bottles of wine down him. He said yes. I got him on the plane as fast as I could, closed the deal and said, send me the next one. Then came Helen, and same thing. Have a glass of wine.

DEADLINE: That must be some wine you serve. So you write it and then what?

SHERIDAN: I sent them the script and he called me and he goes, ‘it’s fu*king perfect. When do we start?’

DEADLINE: Easy as that?

SHERIDAN: It was great. But for me at this point, I love to go find new [talent] and I think that I found some here. The challenge for a network is they got to go launch these things. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars. They need as many bankable names, recognizable faces that an audience would say, oh I love that guy. I love her. I’ll watch them. But it’s challenging to sit there and create this. I’m not trying to make a Love Boat. I do love to find these great actors that I don’t tell anybody that they’re in and they just surprise you. I love those Easter eggs, for lack of a better term. And selfishly to get a chance to work with Tom Hanks and some of the other people, what’s better?

Wait until you see some of the people I pulled in for this one. It’s a great opportunity. It’s not a lot of risk or time commitment from them to come in and get a chance to play in a world that most people aren’t creating anymore. When you can find anchors like Harrison and Helen, then it lets me go and discover the next generation of movie stars, which is my favorite thing to do. Go find somebody no one has ever heard of, because our business doesn’t make stars anymore.

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in ‘1923’ (Paramount+) Paramount+

DEADLINE: You found a bunch in 1883. Do you find ways to pull them back in, playing new characters?

SHERIDAN: I don’t want to spoil it because I’ve got a show that no one knows much about that I’ve almost wrapped shooting the whole thing. It’s got probably four of the biggest movie stars alive in it, and we’ve kept it quiet. When you find talents like Isabel [May], you just want to work with them again, and again, and again, and again. I found another half dozen in here and the more you do anything the better you get at it. I’m getting better at finding them. I’ve got people in here that are anchors of this series. The others, it’s such a blank slate for an audience. They don’t know this person. They don’t have any preconceived, ‘I saw them in Saved by the Bell, or I saw them on this or I saw them on that.’ To them the character and the face are the same thing. You don’t have to get something off your palate so to speak.

DEADLINE: It adds to the believability?

SHERIDAN: 100 percent. It’s a much greater challenge to take this household name and have you forget it’s a household name. It’s a greater challenge to the household name, the actor, to me, to everyone. Fortunately, this is some incredible work by Helen and Harrison. I think they disappear. I think it’s really special. You’ve got Helen Mirren writing these letters to her son that lets us understand her deepest thoughts while you’re watching what he’s enduring. From a storytelling standpoint, I’ve never really seen anything like it.

DEADLINE: You told me that 1883 was done on an impossibly accelerated schedule to help launch Paramount+. Was this as costly? Much of the first two eps are shot in Africa.

SHERIDAN: I’m going to tell you and you can tell by watching…I would argue that 1883 was the most expensive first season of a TV show ever made. This was much more expensive. Much more expensive. I don’t know what the Game of Thrones budgets were, but I don’t know how they could have been more than this.

DEADLINE: So 1923 is the Avatar of limited TV series?

SHERIDAN: It’s the opposite of that. It’s the Lawrence of Arabia. In other words, you saw six thousand sheep, three thousand cattle, and as this show keeps going, you’re in Africa. All real. You know how hard it is to move a crew around in Africa in 2022 with Covid, and all the rules and all the politics? We were in four countries in Africa. It’s not like we went to one little preserve in South Africa. We were in four different countries. South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, which is actually part of Tanzania, so that doesn’t really count. So, three. Am I missing one?

DAVID GLASSER: We went to Malta. We stopped over in Kabul. That counts because it’s the sixth most dangerous country in the world.

DEADLINE: So, the first eight are shot now and then how quickly do we come back and do the second season?

SHERIDAN: Well, it’s really the second half of the season. This one is different than 1883 where I had the whole thing blocked out in my head. This one, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just went on a journey myself and I’m the one that made the call to the network, which is probably the greatest call they ever got. Hey, I need to make more episodes to finish this story. I need to do this in two blocks. An eight episode block and a second eight episode block to wrap this up. I can’t wrap it up in two episodes and do the story justice. For them, it is great because they get more content. For me, I get more runway.

So, that’s the thing about Paramount that’s been so great for me. They’re so malleable to the storyteller, or at least to me as the storyteller. They will add episodes because I need it to tell the story. You think about when you talk about a show that’s costing $22 million an episode and you just asked for eight more episodes, I didn’t do very good in math in school, but I can multiply eight and three and add a bunch of zeroes and realize I just asked for 150 million dollars.

DEADLINE: How hard was it to get Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren back for more?

SHERIDAN: They were excited. They only signed on originally for one season. They were so eager to continue it…Harrison made a comment at one point, he goes, Taylor I think I’m making the best thing I’ve made in 20 years. And my response to him was, what the fu*k did you make 20 years ago as good as this? What was that? I missed that one. What was it?

DEADLINE: The autonomy you have sounds almost unprecedented…

SHERIDAN: No one has had the freedom I’ve had since Robert Evans ran Paramount. Bobby Evans had made movies before he became the head of the studio and so he understood how to turn them loose. If you trust them, trust them, and turn them loose. And under his regime, Paramount made some of the best movies they’d ever made, some of the best movies ever made. The Godfather being one of them. Love Story, many others. Bet on Al Pacino. Al Pacino had to borrow five dollars from them to get to the premiere.

DEADLINE: Why did you focus on this particular period?

SHERIDAN: I know they read the scripts, but they don’t read scripts, so when they read the last episode of 1883, I don’t think they digested what had just happened, even though I made it quite clear from the very beginning. The story I heard is Bob Bakish watched it and said, ‘wait a minute, she dies! They all die? What do we do in season two?’ I said, there is no season two. They’re like, there better be a fu*king season two because we already picked it up. I’m sitting here going, guys everyone is dead.

DEADLINE: What we have here is a failure to communicate?

SHERIDAN: They wanted to have a meeting about how Sam Elliott survived his suicide. By the very nature of the term it’s not something survivable, and who would want to see that? So, I said I’ll come up with another peek into the window and I sat there and tried to look at it. I studied Montana’s history and the history of the world. Covid was ending, which is a very similar thing to World War I, because after World War I ended, about a half a year later the Spanish Flu arrived and it killed 100 times what our Covid-19 did.

That’s devastation, when it takes 40 to 49% percent of [the population of] San Francisco. People don’t understand [the enormity], and Montana interestingly had a depression about a decade before the depression because it was such a cattle economy…all the cattle ranches at that time were sending all the beef to the British army, and French armies, and ultimately our army. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of free money for these homesteaders.

Even though they had big tracts of land there was a lot of pressure to raise more and more and more beef. So they took out these big loans to get more things and Montana had its depression a decade before the depression. And there were really range wars between all of these different groups largely divided among not nationalistic lines.

You have mostly the Englishmen were the ones who were raising cattle and the Texans who came up and stayed, and then you had the Irishmen and some Scotsmen that were running sheep, and they were always in opposition. Certain Scotch Irish would align with the English. There was a very strange old world battle for Montana at this time while you have this renaissance of sorts taking place in Africa, which is at that period of time the height of colonialism.

Kenya and Zanzibar in that area Tanzania had been British spoils of World War I, and so, there was just so many things that were so rich about this world and it took me eight months to even…and they kept going, when are we going to get a script? I said, I don’t know. Everyone is dead. I don’t know how to write the next season of this damn thing [1883] but I kept hunting history, and I kept finding things. It’s the one great thing about the Dutton family; you can skip generations and put them in all these unique situations, and it has nothing to do with Yellowstone, nothing to do with 1883 and yet it’s tethered completely to them, but they’re all standalones. That’s what I find so intriguing about it.

DEADLINE: You’ve told me that meeting Isabel May for the female lead role of Mayor Of Kingstown became the catalyst for how to tell the 1883 story with her as the adventurous daughter Elsa Dutton, as well as the narrator. What was the eureka moment here?

SHERIDAN: A friend of mine, I went through her photographs from her trip to Africa. I started reading about these people living in Africa, attempting but failing to duplicate the American expansion in a place that was where we all came from. You bring a bunch of horses to Africa, you just brought a new treat for a lion and yet they built these fantastic cities. Nairobi was this incredible colonial, and I say incredible only that they had built this playground for the elite in the middle of where we evolved, and the danger of the place was the allure. It was wickedly dangerous, and there’s a romanticism, as opposed to the fatalism of 1883.

It really is a study of sacrifice. We can sit here and argue whether we should have, shouldn’t have [engaged in manifest destiny]. Virtually every place on this planet was settled exactly as America was settled. People lived there, and other people went there and either assimilated those people or killed those people. We could sit there and wish it wasn’t that way but that’s the way it is. But the people that were sent were never, ever the thinkers. The thinkers convinced the most desperate of society to go do that dirty work for them.

The desperate of society, all those people in Europe and Germany and Wales and Ireland, they had no idea that there were full native nations living in these places. They didn’t know there were rattlesnakes, or rivers. They didn’t know anything. They just had a dream that was sold to them, and they went and tried to achieve it, and some did. So, here’s the consequence, also the realization of a dream and the challenges of that dream coming true.

There is a real romanticism to that era, the ‘20s, that permeated every portion of existence. Even though if you look at the ‘20s it’s not dissimilar from the political culture we’re in right now, where you had the rise of the caucus movement in the United States. You had a real questioning of a capitalistic society. You had a war taking place inside the United States, and it was taking place throughout Europe and Eastern Europe and obviously in Russia where that war was lost or won depending on your point of view, and all of these things were playing out in Montana when there were 80 thousand people.

So, the winning or losing of a battle had massive consequences for everyone around them. It’s just a really fascinating time and for me it’s not my place to judge it. And I don’t judge it. I just hold a mirror up and go, hey here’s what it was.

Taylor Sheridan on ‘1883’ set (Paramount+) ViacomCBS

DEADLINE: It is kind of a blind spot in history…

SHERIDAN: When you’re studying in school, you skip from World War I to the Great Depression to World War II. You kind of gloss over Korea because nobody really understands that. Get into the Civil Rights. Deal with Vietnam as best we can and then power through to today. So, the ‘20s was skipped but it’s incredibly decadent, desperate. There were all these pockets in America that were experiencing a famine and depression that would ultimately culminate in the dust bowl later and all these things that altered the landscape of America.

California at that time…I read that all of Orange County got its name because what it had were the missionaries and orange groves, and the river that used to run through it was so wide you needed a barge to cross it. We sucked all that water away, and all that is the result of the Great Depression and the dust bowl, and in this era, which is really the beginning of it. Most of the cowboys as well as all these ranches started going under in the 20s. So they headed west to California to be wranglers in all the silent pictures.

And so, you have Dick Foran in Fort Apache, that’s where he got his academy award nomination. That’s a Montana cowboy. He went west because the ranch went out of business. Not his ranch. He was a cowboy on a ranch. He’s from New Jersey. Wanted to be a cowboy…somebody wrote something about Taylor’s got all these people talking with southern accents, and they’re in Montana, they don’t have southern accents in Montana. Wrong. You’re going to see the accents that they have. They did have southern accents in Montana, and they had British accents and Scottish accents and Irish accents, because no one was from fu*king Montana if you were white, because we just got there. Everyone was from somewhere else. They don’t have southern accents now. 100 years later they don’t have them. They don’t have any accents now.