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Hard Ridin’ Tom Selleck, Strong Cast Get A Charge Out Of Doing Own Stunts In ‘Last Stand At Saber River’

Dennis Anderson Associated Press

For the legions of fans who still mourn the passing of John Wayne and pine for the vistas of John Ford’s classic Westerns, the question is this: “Why don’t they make ‘em like they used to?”

Hollywood could learn a thing or two about one of the screen’s most beloved genres from the likes of Tom Selleck and tough guy author Elmore Leonard. The pair combined talents with a formidable cast and crew to create “Last Stand at Saber River,” a small-screen treat that offers big-screen pleasures for Ted Turner’s TNT network.

Shot under a vast blue sky in a rugged New Mexico canyon, “Last Stand,” which premieres at 5 p.m. Sunday and is rated TV-PG, looks like a Western from the time when The Duke was getting the drop on bad guys in sagas like “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo.”

With the rugged and straight-shooting Selleck, the story has Leonard’s essential ingredients for classic material: a hero and a landscape.

Nowadays, for every big-screen Western hit like “Tombstone,” there’s a megabudget miss like “Wyatt Earp.” The uneven track record makes studios jittery about rustling up $30 million or more for the genre.

But Leonard knows the territory. He wrote the classic Westerns “Hombre” and “Valdez is Coming” before becoming a best-selling crime writer.

Scripted and produced from a Leonard paperback published in 1958, “Last Stand at Saber River” has wild horses, a runaway wagon, two Carradine brothers wearing black hats and a frontier wife played by Suzy Amis that makes Ma Joad look like a wimp.

“I wanted it to be a definitive Western,” said Selleck, who teamed with Michael Brandman as executive producer. “In the world of feature films, we had no money at all, but we had the cast.”

Yup, as in David and Keith Carradine from “The Long Riders.” Shoot, they even got Harry Carey Jr., who saddled up with Wayne and Ford four decades ago in “The Searchers.”

Indeed, “Last Stand” was delivered for a pittance by studio standards - about $5 million or so, guessed Leonard, who’s gotten his own digs in at the Hollywood system in “Get Shorty,” his comic sendup of larceny in Tinseltown.

Leonard puzzles over why Westerns need to be as expensive as contemporary action movies laden with car crashes and spaceborne special effects.

“I think all that money gets in the way,” he said. “As soon as the star demands so many millions, everybody else gets in line.”

For Selleck, making a large-scale entertainment on a lean budget became a matter of professional pride.

“When you’ve got a limited budget, you have to get your act together,” he said in an interview.

In black jeans and a brushed cotton cowboy-style shirt, Selleck was his genial self, even as he sipped one of those hot lemon drinks concocted to ward off a feverish bug.

Because of the production’s scale and remote locale, Selleck, Amis and the Carradine brothers did most of the riding and stunts in “Last Stand” and had “some of the great days of our lives,” Selleck mused.

“All actors want to make Westerns,” he said. “They grew up on them, and they don’t make enough of them.”

“I think they’re good for kids,” he added, “especially when they’re in the classic mode. They should involve a moral dilemma.”

Selleck plays Cable, a Civil War veteran from the losing side who’s trying to get his life and family back together in the Old West. He’s a man with a secret that’s poisoning his marriage as the war is ending.

The Carradines play ranchers who want to run Cable off the land he’s staked out with his wife, Martha, the screen’s most ornery pioneer wife. Heck, she’s even a gunsmith and, at one point, a more deadly shot than Selleck.

Selleck, who won an Emmy as the laid-back shamus of “Magnum, P.I.,” is no stranger to the big Western. In Montana, antique rifle enthusiasts hold an annual black-powder target competition named after the sharpshooter he played in “Quigley Down Under.”

Now, in “Last Stand at Saber River,” Selleck, tall in the saddle, and Leonard, the enduring storyteller, blend their skills like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

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