According to Matt Zoller Seitz, author of "The Deadwood Bible," HBO had a difficult time casting the central character of Al Swearengen for their acclaimed series, "Deadwood."
Creator David Milch pushed for "Married with Children" actor Ed O'Neill, but HBO quickly nixed that idea. They eventually went into a "bake off" audition between two Irish actors, Patrick Bergin and Ian McShane.
"Bergin was good, but Ian McShane was sensational," says Seitz.
It turns out that McShane — who would become iconic for his performance as Swearengen through the series' run — had a bit of an ace up his sleeve.
In addition to his memorable films like "The Warriors," "48 Hrs.," and "Streets of Fire," famed director Walter Hill was brought in to direct the "Deadwood" pilot.
"The reason Ian McShane was sensational was because Walter Hill wanted him," says Seitz. "(McShane) went to (Hill's) hotel room the night before and Hill basically told him exactly how he wanted to read the part."
Seitz's fellow critic, Walter Chaw, has written about the iconoclastic filmmaker and his films in the book, "A Walter Hill Film: Tragedy and Masculinity in the films of Walter Hill."
Chaw is headlining a recurring segment for Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA" on Hill and his films, called "Walter on Walter."
He says the Deadwood pilot carries a lot of Hill's trademarked themes and motifs.
"It is a distillation of Walter Hill's ideas about male relationships, a relationship between Wild Bill and Seth Bullock in particular," says Chaw. "Then there's Al Swearengen and there's all of these kinds of masculinity coalescing in this place that's trying to learn how to be a civilization."
Chaw also thinks the pilot was gorgeously filmed by Hill.
"Hill gives (the pilot) a thing that I think the rest of the series maybe lacks a little bit, as much of the all-time American masterpiece as it is," Chaw says. "I still miss the brevity and the efficiency of action that Walter Hill brings to it."
Chaw points to an exchange toward the end of the pilot between Wild Bill Hickok and Seth Bullock, who Hickok has kindly nicknamed "Montana." Both men are newcomers to the town of Deadwood and former lawmen. They enforce justice on the main thoroughfare to a nefarious road agent suspected of murder. After the road agent is gunned down, Wild Bill says, "Was that you or me, Montana?"
"It's like something by Eugene Manlove Rhodes or something. There's extraordinary brevity and poetry to it," Chaw says of that line. "Wild Bill never talks like that again throughout the course of that series."
"This is Walter Hill coming in as a guy who never can resist rewriting some parts and asserting himself a little bit, asserting his authorial presence in the pilot of Deadwood and saying, 'Yeah, you know, this is a beautifully conceived project that I'm going to tweak and make it just a little bit finer,'" he continues.
Chaw notes that Hill won an Emmy for Best Direction for the "Deadwood" pilot. Unfortunately, that was the extent of Hill's involvement with the series. Due to creative differences with Milch, Hill's lasting legacy might just be the casting of McShane. Chaw states that it's not surprising this creative pairing was short-lived.
"I think Hill saw certain things in a way that was more abbreviated than Milch does," he says. "It's an amazingly written but densely written series. And you'll find there are very few speeches in Hill's movies."
"All of his movies cook. He doesn't like what he would call the 'conversations by the campfire,'" Chaw says. "'Deadwood' is a series that's defined by the writing, whereas Hill is more defined by the motion."