MISSOULA — The first major television documentary about Montana cowboy artist Charles M. Russell will enjoy a three-night broadcast premiere on MontanaPBS at 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Nov. 13-15.
“C.M Russell and the American West” explores Russell’s life, art, writings and enduring legacy through interviews with scholars, biographers and experts, along with archival photographs and film. Academy Award-winning actor and University of Montana alumnus J.K. Simmons narrates the documentary, and three well-known actors voice the recollections of Russell, his wife, Nancy, and protégé Joe DeYong. The documentary will reintroduce Russell to a 21st century audience and affirm his standing as a major American artist.
The film suggests that Montanans’ lasting affection for Russell comes from his ability to show them what they remembered, or wanted to remember, about the land and the history they shared. In the documentary, Russell biographer John Taliaferro said Russell was successful and revered because he was genuine.
“Charlie Russell lamented the loss of a West that has passed,” Taliaferro said, “but then went on to convince us and convince himself that that West, that mythic West, had been quite real. And the way he was able to convince us really was because he was so authentic himself.”
Brian Dippie, a history professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a noted Russell scholar, said Russell had an innate ability to turn his own nostalgia into a national nostalgia.
“It was an idea about loss, nostalgia, sentiment and a glowing vision of what it would have been like to be there when the world was young,” Dippie said. “Russell had the rare ability to project his realization of his youthful dreams, his fantasies, his realities and make them the world’s.”
Nancy Russell successfully promoted her husband’s art to well-heeled patrons across the country, making him the highest-paid artist in America at the time of his death in 1926.
“Without her, I would probably have never attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few pictures for my friends and old acquaintances in the West,” Russell said of Nancy. “She is the business end, and I am the creative. She lives for tomorrow, and I live for yesterday.”
Emmy Award-winning television and film actor Kathy Baker (“Picket Fences,” “The Right Stuff”) voices Nancy Russell. Montana resident and actor Bill Pullman (“Sinners,” “Battle of the Sexes”) developed a quiet yet intense voice for Charlie Russell’s writings and musings, and popular supporting actor Dylan Baker (“The Good Wife,” “The Americans”) — whose father was raised in Lewistown — is the voice of DeYong. Montana actors Mark Metcalf and Howard Kingston voice the words of Russell’s nephew Austin Russell and friend Teddy Blue Abbott, respectively.
Co-producer and script writer Paul Zalis spent four years assembling a coalition of art and film historians, Russell biographers, curators, art museums, collectors, cowboys and cowgirls and ardent fans to tell the story. Co-producer and director Gus Chambers of MontanaPBS searched photograph and film archives, filmed interviews, directed re-creations, captured Montana landscapes evocative of Russell’s art and edited the film. Several partner institutions and private art collectors provided access to the best, and sometimes obscure, pieces of Russell’s art.
Two Montana museums, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and the Montana Historical Society, also were central to the film’s success. A complete list of partner institutions, scholars and financial donors is available at http://www.montanapbs.org/CMRussellAmericanWest/.
MontanaPBS is a statewide collaborative public television service of UM and Montana State University.