The Man from San Saba: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones article from Western Horseman

Tommy Lee Jones is a Texan of many talents—actor, rancher, polo player and horse breeder.

By GARY VORHES, originally published in the April 1992 issue of Western Horseman. 

When Tommy Lee Jones arrived to start shooting the epic TV miniseries Lonesome Dovehe already had the south Texas accent and mannerisms down cold.

Tommy Lee was born in the little town of San Saba, a couple hours’ drive north of San Antonio. This is hill country, and it’s rocky and brushy and spiny and most of its weather comes from the extreme ends of the scale.

Despite that, Lonesome Dove, written by fellow Texan Larry McMurtry, who won the Pulitzer for the novel, was the first western that Tommy Lee had worked on.

Tommy Lee Jones standing with horse
The Texan is very proud of the young horses he’s producing.

His life and career have made some big circles since his family moved to Midland when he started grade school.

Like thousands of other Texas families, the Jones clan went through major changes as a result of the oil business, to which Tommy Lee still has financial ties. The family moved to Mid­land, from the small ranching community of Benjamin and from Midland to Libya (this was before the Khaddafi era). Tommy Lee stayed be­hind and attended St. Marks School of Texas, a prep school that he credits with making major changes in him. For one thing, he developed his football skills, and for another, he got his first acting experience and training.

His football prowess attracted offers from a number of colleges. Tommy Lee chose Harvard, primarily because they were interested in more than his football ability. Not that he didn’t have plenty of that—as number 61 in the offensive line, he was voted All-Ivy, All-East, and awarded an honorable mention for All-American.

Off the field, he took acting jobs in the sum­mer. Jones finished his college career with a de­gree in English, and graduated with honors in 1969. Still breaking patterns, he moved to New York City right after graduation, got his first job within 10 days, and spent several years polishing his skills on the stage. Tommy Lee still has a great fondness for New York, returns when he can, and refers to the city as the “Little Apple.”

Jones began his film career in 1970, and has also done quite a lot of television work along the way. He is a defender of television, pointing out that it is still a relatively young industry.

Tommy Lee’s movie credits began to pile up, and led to his selection to play Loretta Lynn’s husband, Mooney, in Coal Miner’s Daughter, an Academy Award winner for his friend Sissy Spa­cek. Tommy Lee won an Emmy for his perform­ance in the made-for-television movie The Exe­cutioner’s Song, and was nominated for another in recognition of his work in Lonesome Dove.

That epic miniseries, filmed in 1988, was not just another job to him. His first words about it were that CBS “got awful lucky on that picture. They got lucky every day.”

The whole crew caught a strange fever on the project, and they came early, stayed late, and wanted to make sure everything was right.

Tommy Lee Jones with Buckboard
This dilapidated buckboard is retired on Fleming Springs Ranch.

A good example was the scene in town where Captain Call races his gray horse, The Hell Bitch, full speed down the street and broadsides a mounted soldier, blocking him from another soldier who is quirting a young member of the trail crew.

That scene really impressed me, and when I asked Tommy Lee about it, he said that the dra­matic impact of it was no accident. Jones is an accomplished horseman, and a 2-goal-rated polo player, which we’ll talk about later, and when they were preparing to shoot that scene, he knew that it wouldn’t come across well as planned. He talked with the director, and won a month’s time to train a horse to make the scene work correctly.

Several gray horses had been brought from California for use in the film, but none of them had a decent stop. Tommy Lee picked a horse and started putting a stop on him, first teaching the horse to get back on his hindquarters, and easing him toward a real sit-down whoa.

Jones also arranged to obtain a horse trained to fall down on cue to serve as the target horse. When the day for the shoot came, a big patch of soft dirt was ready for the fall.

Tommy Lee had built his gray horse up to bel­lying down into a full-out run before being gath­ered into a butt-down stop. The soft dirt helped the gray horse to slide right up to the target horse, which fell on a precisely timed cue, and the lone camera angle made it look like the gray had really put a whammy on the target horse.

Jones especially admires co-star Robert Duvall, and when I asked Tommy Lee about all the sign-language gestures that the two of them use in the film, he said that those are mostly a mannerism of Duvall’s.

The whole experience of making Lonesome Dove affected Tommy Lee Jones, and probably many of the other actors and crew members, pro­foundly. When he explained it to me, he deliber­ated over how to describe it, explaining that he still gets letters from people who tell him how the movie affected them. One father, for instance, wrote that although he thought television was to blame for destroying family life, the movie had brought his family close together again.

Tommy Lee, an English major who graduated with honors, finally settled on the word “re­demptive” to describe what Lonesome Dove had done for westerns and for television in general.

I had to look it up to be sure I understood what he meant. He’d picked the precise word—it means, roughly, something that cancels out any previous wrongdoing or fail­ures … salvation.

Since then, Jones has tried out a differ­ent role in supplying horses for another movie that he appears in, Blue Sky, which also stars Jessica Lange. He says it was interesting to work behind the cameras, and to school the horses for camera work. In 1991, he also filmed Before I Wake, with Kathleen Turner.

But the most visible piece of work in ’91 was JFK, the Oliver Stone film that premiered in December of 1991. Tommy Lee has a key role.

Three films in a single year is more than his usual load, but he looked back on it with satisfaction, saying that he had “kept awfully good company.”

Tommy Lee standing by horse pen
Tommy Lee looks over one of his young horses at ranch headquarters.

Filming averages 3 months per movie, and although that’s good for the bank ac­count, it seriously cut into his polo sched­ule. He even had to miss the Cecil Smith Tournament that he hosts every year at his Fleming Springs Ranch.

Polo is one of those sports that often becomes a consuming passion, and given the intensity Jones brings to everything he does, it’s no shock that he’s deadly se­rious about this high-speed activity.

His interest began years ago, when he watched a match in California, where he’d moved after his acting years in New York. He was beginning to get into television and movie work, but was fascinated with polo, and asked where he could learn. He was lucky enough to get his introduction and early training from Dr. Billy Linfoot, a leg­end in the sport.

Today, Tommy Lee is rated at 2 goals ( out of a possible 10 held by a handful of professionals). Jones’ rating is the highest ever achieved by most amateur players who can’t devote full time to the sport.

It goes further than that. Tommy Lee plays mostly horses he has raised him­self, and part of his ranching operation at San Saba is devoted to raising polo horses. Most polo prospects are se­lected on a hit-and-miss basis, with many coming off the tracks. But a few devoted breeders are selecting types and bloodlines aimed at producing the unique combination of conformation, speed, and responsiveness, plus raw guts, needed for the game.

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