Pilot Error: The Legend of John Swartzwelder’s ‘Pistol Pete’

Brian Doyle-Murray and Steve Kearney (Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
Brian Doyle-Murray and Steve Kearney (Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

Hooray! People are actually reading this column!

Well, perhaps I’m overstating things. I mean, it’s not like I actually have the stats in front of me or anything. But I can state with confidence that at least one person is reading the column, because last week I received—GASP!—a request.

Yes, that’s right, I received a short, straight-to-the-point missive which…oh, wait, hang on, now that I look back at it, I don’t even know if you can really call this thing an email. It’s really just a subject line—”Please find a copy of John Swartzwelder’s Pistol Pete pilot and review”—and then the link to the IMDb listing for the 1996 FOX pilot. That’s it.

And yet, in what I now recognize as a desperate cry for further reader emails, I jumped on the request like it was a paid assignment and ran straight to the ‘net to find out everything I possibly could about this legendary pilot written by the notoriously press-shy gentleman who has penned more episodes of The Simpsons (59) than anyone else while steadfastly refusing to participate in audio commentaries for any of them.

What I quickly found out, however, is that, aside from its IMDb listing, virtually every hit you get for the words “Pistol Pete” and “John Swartzwelder” involves some version of the question, “Hey, has anyone ever seen / know where I can find a copy of John Swartzwelder’s Pistol Pete?” It has become the stuff of legend just by virtue of its author, yet the only thing anyone really seemed to know about it was that it was a western.

Studying the skimpy IMDb listing, I decided to drop an email to the actor who played the title character, Stephen Kearney, and ask if he’d be up for talking about the pilot. His first response was to say, “Definitely, I have lots to say about that.” His follow-up response: “How on earth did you find me?” (It’s a fair question, as he lives in Melbourne, but it’s amazing what a little creative Googling can pull up.) Soon, we were Skype-ing it up, he was filling me in on everything I didn’t know about the show, and even offering to send me some of his personal snapshots from the set, including one of the elusive Mr. Swartzwelder.

And on that note, after sending my faithful reader an email to tell him that I was on the case inasmuch as someone who still hadn’t actually seen the pilot could be, he suddenly turned into my own personal Deep Throat and gave me a clue as to how I might be able to get in contact with Swartzwelder…not that doing so would in any way guarantee that I’d get a response to my communique, of course. Still, I had to try. So I dropped him a line, explaining what I was doing, and—fair warning: you may want to sit down before you finish reading the rest of the sentence—he actually wrote me back. Unsurprisingly, he declined to be interviewed, but he did offer to try and help me with any answers I couldn’t find elsewhere, gave me his blessing to use the aforementioned photo within the piece, wished me luck with the column, and, perhaps best of all, gave me this quote:

Pistol Pete still makes me laugh, and Stephen Kearney was terrific.”

Yeah, I know, it’s only 11 words, but they’re 11 on-the-record words from John Swartzwelder. Rest assured that I am appropriately honored and have already begun the process of having the email framed.

Lastly, after looking at the rest of the cast of the pilot and recalling how difficult it’s been in the past for me to get an interview with Brian Doyle-Murray, I decided to reach out to the other fellow whose face I immediately recognized: Mark Derwin, otherwise known as George Juergens on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Turns out Derwin’s only just joined Twitter and only has a few followers, so he couldn’t help but spot my Tweet to him about Pistol Pete, and it apparently amused him enough that he graciously agreed to hop on the phone with me as soon as his schedule allowed.

I’ve got to tell you, I may have only just started this column, but it’s already proving to be a blast, and the fact that a reader request has made it even more fun…well, that’s about as good as it gets, y’know? So if you’re finding yourself reading Pilot Error for the first time right now, first of all, welcome, but secondly, if you’ve got a request for a future column, drop us a line. As a fellow TV geek, I love researching this stuff almost as much as I love reading about it, and I’ll be glad to do my best to help satisfy your curiosity about some shoulda-been-a-series gem that you’ve always wanted to know more about.

But now, return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear…specifically, 1996…as we delve into the legend of John Swartzwelder’s Pistol Pete!

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)


Antenna Free TV: This has got to be a bit surreal for you, talking about a pilot you did back in 1996 that wasn’t even picked up.

Steve Kearney: Ah, well, yes, I’m old, so there’s a lot of past to catch up with me. [Laughs.]

Well, to start, how did you come to be a part of Pistol Pete? Was it an audition situation, or did someone at FOX approach you about doing something for the network and that’s what was available?

No, I had a development deal at Castle Rock with Glenn Padnick. I don’t know if he’s still around, although I know he’s not still at Castle Rock, but he was just a sweetheart. You know, he’s the guy who got Seinfeld going. In fact, if you watch Seinfeld, you can hear him laughing. There’s the laugh track, there’s chuckles from the audience, then there’s the guy going… [Bursts in huge, boisterous laughter.] That’s Glenn Padnick!

Anyway,  they all went tooling around, trying to find me something. And, actually, Tom Gammill and Max Pross were going to write me a pilot before John came on the scene. I’m a bit vague on what happened with that, but we definitely met at Castle Rock. Just another weird Simpsons connection. But Swartzwelder had already written this pilot, this spec script, and…it was kind of a perfect fit. Of course, everyone wanted to work with John, so Castle Rock put us in a room, and we kind of chatted about it, and then we went from there. I had a couple of other offers, but all I remember for sure is that ICM were handling it, and they called me up one day and said, “Hey, Steve! We got that Pistol Pete thing for ya!” I’m, like, “Well, yeah, I know.” But later I found out that they gave my other thing (Secret Service Guy) to Judge Reinhold, which was why they had the sudden urgency about playing up having gotten me Pistol Pete. [Laughs.] He went off and made six shows of his thing, and our thing never got picked up. Anyway, you just realize that you’re a small cog in a big machine in Hollywood.

When I met John, he was so suspicious of me.  He was just, like, “Who is this asshole, he’s gonna come in and ruin my vision,” blah blah blah. But, y’know, he didn’t really know anything about me, ‘cause I’d come from live theater. Y’know, movies here and there, but touring around the world, schlepping my ass around the world, doing shows. I don’t know what he thought I was, but he was really suspicious. But then eventually we got really tight. I just wanted the show to get as good as possible, and he really appreciated it, so we eventually got on really well. He was a strange guy, with a comb-over and a white shirt with burger stains on it, driving around in a big old car. I mean, to look at him, you’d think he was someone who’d snuck onto the set. “Hey, you can’t sleep here, we’re shooting a movie!” “No, wait, that’s the writer!”[Laughs.]

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
L-R Steve Kearney, John Rich, and John Swartzwelder (Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

Based on the photos you sent me, it’s pretty clear that Pistol Pete was going to be a period piece, albeit a comedic one. What did you think about that aspect of it?

Oh, well, y’know, I knew where it was coming from. A bit of Blazing Saddles in there. I wasn’t as into The Simpsons as I am now that I have kids, and now that it’s on 24 hours a day on every TV network ever created. I often point out, “Oh, there’s John Swartzwelder, I worked with him,” and they’re, like, “Yeah, whatever, dad.” [Laughs.] The big thing about John’s vision was that he basically wanted the entire crew of Gunsmoke to work on the show. I was, like, “Are you serious?” “Yes! I want it just like Gunsmoke!” So we actually got a lot of the crew from Gunsmoke.

That’s funny: I knew that John Rich, who directed the pilot, had done a lot of TV, but, sure enough, among his credits are 14 episodes of Gunsmoke.

[Laughs.] Yeah! And he directed Gilligan’s Island, The Dick Van Dyke Show…even an Elvis movie or two! He was starting to get up there by the time he did our show—he could barely get up out of his chair!—but I believe he was the president of the Director’s Guild at the time. (Actually, he was VP. – Ed.) I’m, uh, not sure that was the right decision, because his chair was often too far away from the set, but…yeah, anyway, we ended up with kind of a mixed crew. I think we got the crew from Murder, She Wrote to shoot the thing, but anyone who was still alive from Gunsmoke was hanging around. Y’know, a few old horse wranglers.

I had one guy who would always come to the trailer to pick me up, and…I think he was 75 years old. He’d knock on the door and go, “Steve! Pistol Pete! They’re ready to go!” And I’d come out the door and start walking, and he’d be walking behind me at a snail’s pace, so I’d have to slow down. This is the guy who’s supposed to be hustling me to the set! [Laughs.] It was hysterical. But, y’know, that’s the power of John Swartzwelder. And that’s the magic of Hollywood; they let him go with his vision, even though it might’ve been a bit nutty, because they’re, like, “Well, let’s just see where this goes…”

You’ve got a couple of pictures of yourself with Brian Doyle Murray. Of the people in the cast, I’d guess he was the one you would’ve been mostly likely to recognize right away.

Oh, yeah! I’m a Bill Murray fan, so I was, like, “Oh, you’re the guy who’s always hanging around him in the movies!” [Laughs.] “Now I know who you are!” But he was a lovely guy. You know, as an Aussie, the idea of working…we’re always having a celebration. “Yay! We’re working! Let’s pull together! We’re a team! This is fantastic and magical!” For Americans, it’s, like, “Right, where are we this week?” But I tried…forced, really…the director to meet me before we started the show. “I just think it’d be really nice to meet the director!” He’s, like, “Oh, all right, whatever…”

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

I’d done a bunch of movies before that, but Pistol Pete was to be the big one for me, so I was keen to really get things going. I was surprised, though, because there were scenes in it where it said, “Pistol Pete pulls out his guns and does this amazing trick and shoots all these things and twirls his guns and puts them back in the holster again.” I was, like, “But I’ve never even held a pistol before.” They’re, like, “You’ll be fine!” [Laughs.] “But what about all the training and everything you guys do? Shouldn’t there be some rigorous three-month thing…?” “Nah, you’ll be fine!” “Uh…I don’t think I will be fine. I don’t think I’ll be fine at all!” I nearly had a bit of a panic attack, frankly. Eventually, something like three days before, they sent me up to Universal and gave me half an hour with the guy doing the western show or something, but…I just found that really surprising, since I was playing this guy who was supposed to be a real trick sharpshooter.

Based on the cast listing, it seems like you must’ve worked pretty closely with Mark Derwin, since he’s listed as Deputy Pete.

Yeah. He was a real pro. Really easy-going. I was an outsider, so he was suspicious of me, because in the pilot…well, I suppose you know what the story is, don’t you?

Actually, I don’t.


Seriously, that’s how little information there is on the thing!

Oh, well, then we are about to blow that thing wide open! [Laughs.] The story is that I was Pistol Pete, and I was a kind of show marksman in New York who did tricks onstage. We did a little pre-thing where I’m in New York, doing a show, and these cattle rustlers are onstage, and then I come in, and I go, “Bang, bang, bang,” and they all fall down. And someone runs in and says, “Telegram for Mister Pistol Pete!” “They want me to be the sheriff of Abilene?!?” And, y’know, I’m really dumb. I mean, I’m just completely stupid. So I go over to Abilene, this dime-store cowboy or whatever you call them. Swartzwelder knew all about that stuff, not me! But they’d write little books about them, and they’d become famous, even though it was all made up.

Anyway, Pistol Pete had a bit of a reputation, and the town was being attacked by bad guys, so they needed to hire a big gun, they read this little book, and they said, “Well, that’s our guy!” So they bring me into town,  and Derwin was the deputy, and he was, like, “You’re gonna help save us, ‘cause everybody else is getting killed.” “No worries! No problem! I’ll shoot ‘em all!” And Derwin’s starting to think, “What’s going on with this guy? I think we’re in big trouble.” Meanwhile, everyone else is, like, “No! He’ll save us!”

We shot it on this huge ranch. It was a big show, something like a three million dollar budget. We did all this stuff with horses and stagecoaches, spurs and shootouts, and Derwin was just kind of a terrific foil for me. And because I inadvertently thwart all the bad guys and he can’t believe it’s happened, he’s, like, “Well, I suppose we’re a team…” Or we would’ve been. [Makes sad-trumpet sound.] But, y’know, it was just one of those things. But I jumped right into it, and I was really disappointed when it didn’t go, because John said he had a whole bunch of Simpsons writers lined up, ready to write the show. He and I kept in touch for a couple of years afterward and used to catch up, by the way. He was terrific.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

When you and I initially traded emails, you mentioned that Ned and Stacy was one of the reasons why Pistol Pete didn’t get picked up.

Yeah, I think it got renewed, but, um, I wasn’t that happy with the cut of our pilot, though. Once I did see it, I was, like, “Oh, okay, uh…” It just didn’t have that punch. That Simpsons punch. It was kind of there, but…in kind of a static way. But I guess that’s what you expect from a crew of people who are 80 years old. [Laughs.]

But they still kept me on tenterhooks until the very last morning. They said, “Tomorrow morning, 9 a.m., have your bags packed. And if it’s a good phone call, there’ll be a limo downstairs, and we’ll take you to New York, and we’ll go straight to the upfronts.” And then you get the call where there’s a little bit of a hang, and you’re, like, “Uh-oh. It’s the bad call.” So instead of going off on this amazing journey with this character you’ve lovingly developed, you go on and do the washing or something. [Sighs.] But that’s life in that business, you know?

You said you weren’t happy with the cut. Where did the fault lie? With the director, the network, or with Swartzwelder himself?


Or you can plead the Fifth if you don’t want to commit.

Oh, I’m Australian. We’re an honest people. [Laughs.] Besides, I don’t need Hollywood anymore…or, rather, they don’t need me! But, no, y’know, with a cut of the pilot, it’s hard to say whose fault it is. All you know is that you go, “Can we just make it better, please?” I wasn’t involved with it. They showed it to me and I sent them some notes, but I wasn’t involved in the post-production part. I just think it could’ve been a lot better. And when you see it… I mean, when you see the pilot for Friends or something, you go, “Wow, that’s it!” The show’s set in stone right away. But then you watch the first season of Seinfeld, and it’s a bit like watching the fake version of Seinfeld they made later in the series, because they weren’t quite there yet. That’s kind of what the pilot of Pistol Pete was like: a lot of promise, but we weren’t quite there yet.

I was actually at a wedding in Italy a year later, and some guy kept saying, “Y’know, your face looks familiar, mate…” The place was full of global entertainment types. But we eventually got to the fact that I was a comedian or actor or whatever, and it turned out that he was in the room when…well, this is what he told me: “Oh, yeah, I was at FOX, and we sat Rupert (Murdoch) down, and he watches all the pilots in a row, and yours came on at about four o’clock, but he was tired and he turned it off.” “That was it?” “Yep, that was it.” [Laughs.]

So when all was said and done at FOX, did you at least get to keep your Pistol Pete costume?

I didn’t! It was rented off the rack! [Laughs.] I’m not sure what I kept. But I will say that, when I was looking for those photos, I found myself realizing how long ago it was, thinking, “Wow, I only took 14 photos…” I used to have an old VHS copy of the pilot, but it had kind of disintegrated before a fan ran off with it, saying he was going to clean it up for me. You could barely see anything, though. It’s just the sort of thing you bring out for your kids once in awhile to try and show them what Daddy did, so they can just go, “Yeah, okay, Dad. Whatever.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
Mark Derwin and Rick Hurst (Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)


Antenna Free TV: Thanks for finding a few minutes for me.

Mark Derwin: Oh, it’s my pleasure. You know, it’s so funny: my friends convinced me about six months ago to join Twitter, and I’m not good at it—I don’t know how to do it, and I forget to look at it for long periods of time—but when I was in New York, it was just a fluke, but I looked at it, I saw your Tweet, and I was, like, “Pistol fucking Pete?!?” [Laughs.] It was so long ago. And yet, y’know, I was just telling someone a story about that shoot. It’s crazy.

There’s apparently a small but obsessed population out there who want to know more about this thing, if only because so few people have actually seen it.

Oh, yeah, no one’s seen it. [Laughs.] But do you know who directed it?

Yeah, John Rich.

Yeah, man! And talk about history. That was the best part of it! I would sit there at lunch and just talk to him, ‘cause he directed All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore…all those shows. He’s the one…it was his idea to have Sammy Davis, Jr. kiss Archie Bunker on the cheek!

I did not know that.

Well, I don’t think many people do. I got it out of him just by asking him. I said, “Well, what about that time with Sammy Davis, Jr.?” And he just started grinning and said, “That was my idea.” And he was the crankiest guy! [Laughs.] Like, at the beginning of the shoot, he was just not that friendly. For instance, we were doing a rehearsal, and…

Okay, so Steve and I didn’t know each other that well, but we were in a lot of the scenes together, and as we’re doing this one, we start walking, Steve’s telling me a story, but then he didn’t stop talking…and it’s my line! I don’t know what to do, but, I mean, it’s only rehearsal, so I kind of waited until he finished, and then just as I’m about to start my line, John Rich says, “Cut! CUT! What’s happening?” And he starts chewing me out for not knowing my lines, which…y’know, you might as well kick me in the balls. I always know my lines. And I got a little upset, which I never, ever do, but I said, “You can’t accuse me of that!” So he and I had this long walk down the middle of the street of this western town, and we’re just talking, and I’m explaining myself, going, “I would never disrespect you like that, I’m always prepared…” And after that little talk, we got along famously. Like I said, we had lunch every day, and I just grilled him about those old shows.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

When I talked to Steve, he said he distinctly remembered Swartzwelder’s big vision for the show was that he wanted anyone he could get who’d worked on Gunsmoke, which John Rich had directed.

Oh, that’s funny. I didn’t remember that. I just remember Swartzwelder saying… Y’know, with him and his Lampoon guys, he goes, “We can spoof every western ever made!” And I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s hysterical!” [Laughs.]

(I don’t believe Swartzwelder was actually part of The Harvard Lampoon, but many other Simpsons writers certainly were, so maybe that’s what Derwin meant.WH)

So how did you come to be a part of Pistol Pete? Based on IMDb, you weren’t coming from a deep comedic background at that point.

No, not at all. Well, I mean, actually, I’d just come off a sitcom, but before that… I got started in my career kind of late. I moved out to L.A. when I was 27. I just got a one-way ticket and said, “I’m going to try and be an actor.” I’d taken some acting classes, but not even in New York. There was this guy I met who was a New York actor who taught out of his basement in Connecticut. But, yeah, anyway, I went out there with a one-way ticket, and I ended up booking some soaps. And, y’know, I wanted to get on the soaps, because I felt I needed experience, but talk about being thrown into the deep end! [Laughs.] I didn’t know anything!

But I came off a good run on Guiding Light—three years—and then I started testing for pilots, and they were comedies. Because I’d done the soap, I had a little bit of experience, and some casting people knew who I was, and…I always felt like I could do comedy, so just as long as I could get in the room with somebody, it wasn’t really an issue that I wasn’t known for comedy. So I booked the Bonnie Hunt show (Bonnie), which was the first time I’d ever done a sitcom, and I was just a fucking mess on the pilot. [Laughs.] Y’know, there were 300 people in the audience, and I’d never done anything like that! But I quickly embraced it, thankfully, and it ended up becoming a really great experience. But we got canceled after, like, 12 episodes…and the next thing I booked was Pistol Pete.

Was Pistol Pete a standard audition situation for you?

Yeah, I met with the casting director (Melissa Skoff), and…I want to say I might’ve pre-read? I don’t know. I really don’t remember. My memory’s terrible. But, anyway, I went in and read for her, and then I found out I was going to test, and I remember when I got to the test, she grabbed me in the hallway and said, “Do what you did in the audition!” And I shrugged and I went, “All right.” So I went in, I did what I did, and…I’ve always been pretty blessed about doing reads in rooms like that, so I booked it, but then I was thinking, “Man, I’m from New York, I don’t know how to…” Like, I grew up outside of Manhattan, but I don’t ride horses and shit. [Laughs.] The biggest thing was that they wanted me to get on a horse naturally, which wasn’t too hard. That’s pretty easy to pull off. But the galloping wasn’t easy for me, so I had to go to this ranch and train on a horse. Thankfully, we had a great stuntman who made me look really cool bolting through the middle of town at full speed.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

We were out in this old western town (Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch) that…well, the thing I know they shot out there, ‘cause it was just before we did, was the Bruce Willis movie Last Man Standing, the gangster movie. They shot that in the same town. Y’know, it’s a ghost town, a prop town. And it was hot as shit. It was over 100 degrees. And here we are in all this western wear…which was fun. I mean, it was a fun shoot. But all I kept thinking was, “Man, I’ve got a bad feeling this is gonna get picked up…and we’re gonna be out here for years!” [Laughs.] But, believe me, I would’ve been happy with it. I really felt like the series was gonna go. It was still kind of the early days of FOX, and they were prone to doing  more quirky stuff, stuff that was a little different from the mainstream networks.. My only regret is that when we found out we weren’t picked up… Back then, I had an answering machine with little cassette tapes, and John Rich left me an intense 15-minute message about how disappointed he was that it didn’t go, he talked about how All in the Family was the worst-received pilot in TV history but that it turned out to be arguably the best sitcom ever, and…well, anyway, he talked about all of this stuff. And I didn’t keep the tape. I was a fool.

Steve said that your character spent a lot of time staring incredulously at Pistol Pete, amazed that he was able to stop the bad guys despite his general incompetence.

Yeah, well, that was the whole premise. Basically, everyone in the town were idiots, and Pete was a five-and-dime cowboy who they wrote to in New York, saying, “Come save our town!” They really believed he was who he was portraying. And I…I think I was just cruising through town when the latest sheriff was killed, and Brian Doyle-Murray—B.D., as I used to call him—he was the mayor, and he was smart. He had some brains. So he and I were the only two people who had any brains in this town. And, you know, there was a young blonde in it who ended up going on… [Hesitates.] I guess she had a little controversy, but she went on to That ‘70s Show. She played the sister?

Oh, shit! So that is Lisa Robin Kelly!

Yeah! I didn’t realize who she was at first, but when I was watching That ‘70s Show, I was, like, “I know that girl!” And then when I was looking back at some photos a year or so later or whatever, I was, like, “Oh, shit, that’s her!” [Laughs.]

She’s in one of the photos that Steve sent me, but I couldn’t place her, either. But, yeah, that is her!

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
L-R Lisa Robin Kelly, Steve Kearney, and Brian Doyle-Murray (Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

Somewhere I’ve got some great pictures, too, because my friend came to visit me, and she brought her camera. She’s an actress, too, and she’d done a western, so we have great shots just kind of hanging out. Most were just of us goofing around, but Steve’s in ‘em, Murray’s in ‘em, and I know the girl’s in ‘em. But Murray…he was a great guy. And, yeah, his character and mine, we were the only ones with any brains. Pete would solve things, but my character was watching his back, even though I was getting no credit for it. And I was gonna leave the town at the end of the pilot, but Murray convinces me to stay. I remember he said, “If the Giants move here, you can pitch.” [Laughs.]

What do you remember about John Swartzwelder? He’s kind of got a reputation as being the J.D. Salinger of The Simpsons.

That’s well put, because, y’know, that’s exactly what I remember: he was so quiet. A big, tall man, really quiet, he probably didn’t say 20 words to me through the whole thing. I remember him obviously being at the casting, and maybe at the audition before my test, but I don’t remember him saying anything. I remember John Rich kind of handled everything during the casting. But like I said, he did mention to me one day about how we could spoof every western ever made, and that him and his buddies were already working it out, thinking ahead for what they wanted to do. But that’s it! He was a quiet genius, y’know?

I was a huge, huge Simpsons fan. I was Team Swartzwelder all the way, y’know what I mean? [Laughs.] He’s all over that show! So when I found out he was behind this pilot, I could not believe my fortune of being able to work with a guy like that. I so respect that kind of humor. But then, of course, we only got to do the pilot, and nobody really saw it, but… [Hesitates.] Y’know, I’m gonna have to dig that out. I must have a copy of it somewhere. Oh, but you know what? I can’t even watch it. I’d need a VCR! [Laughs.] That’s how old it is! Still, I’ve gotta look. I know I have it somewhere, and I can get it transferred to DVD. I’d really like to watch it again, ‘cause I remember it being really…well, I mean, it’s good. It’s definitely funny throughout the whole thing. But it’s over the top. You’ve got Pete, he’s dressed all in white with rhinestones and shit, he completely stands out. But then you’ve got my character, and I get so angry and give him this stare, a look that’s, like, “You’re joking!” And it worked. And Murray, well, you know, he’s always funny. He’s kind of in the background, almost like a puppet master, making this whole thing work out.

But the townsfolk… It’s all coming back to me now. [Laughs.]  We had this guy who used to be on The Dukes of Hazzard (Rick Hurst), and he was a good guy. There was also this other guy…and I’m trying to think of his name! He played a young, dumb townie, and I knew the guy because we used to have a restaurant out here called Ed Debevic’s, a friend of mine worked there, and he used to do a perfect Barney Fife. All he had to do was walk around the restaurant, bullet in his pocket, and just be Barney Fife, and people would take pictures of him. So I knew him from that…but I can’t think of his name! Terrific guy, but if you had to describe him, he’s got kind of a frail, nerdy look about him. I saw him years later on something else, and I immediately said, “Y’remember Pistol Pete?” His role probably would’ve been a recurring one, because he was funny as shit, and he fit right into that yokel theme they were doing for the townsfolk.

By the way, I just remembered this, and when I realized it had happened, I could not believe it. I was mortified. I don’t know if you know, but when you’re shooting, they minimize your script so that you can keep it in your pocket, and you only get that day’s shooting so you don’t have to carry the whole script around with you. So we’re doing this scene, and…I don’t know, I always keep my sides with me when I work, and I refer to them constantly, even if I know ‘em, because I want to get everything exactly right. I just like to see the words, y’know? Just to have them helps keep me relaxed in the moment. When I was working with all these kids on The Secret Life, they’d get theirs, and they’d never look at ‘em again. Even if they were getting the scene wrong, they still wouldn’t refer to the script! But I always do, ‘cause I don’t want to be that person. So, anyway, I was wearing my cowboy outfit—the fitting for which, by the way, was one of my greatest thrills, because I got it at this place in the valley where John Wayne used to get fitted for his westerns—and I had a brown leather vest, and there’s this scene where something happens and you see us running across this field toward the camera. Well, at one point, my vest flies open…and you see a white piece of paper in it. It’s my sides. And no one caught it! We were screening the pilot, and I saw it, and I was just, like, “Argh!” I thought someone was going to spin around and go, “What the fuck is that?” But I never got in trouble for it. I sure beat myself up for it, though. I was, like, “How did that even happen?”

(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Kearney)

The one thing Steve remembered specifically about the pilot not getting picked up is that they kept him on pins and needles until the last second, that he was told he’d either get a phone call saying, “Limo’s on the way, get ready for the upfronts,” or else it’d be to tell him, “Better luck next time.”

Yep. That’s happened to me a couple of times, and it sucks. I don’t remember if I would’ve been invited to the upfronts for that one or not. It might’ve just been him, for all I know. But that happened to me on Life with Bonnie. We were on the air, going for a third season, and we were supposed to be flying to New York for the upfronts on Monday, and we found out on Saturday that we were canceled. It was, like, “Oh, man!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, they’ll do that. You just gotta believe they’re just not sure, that they’re struggling to make a final decision, instead of thinking that they’re just messing with you.

So were you happy with the way the pilot for Pistol Pete turned out?

Well, yeah, like I said, I really thought it was gonna get picked up. It was so quirky and different, there was nothing else on TV like it at the time. I’m not saying there isn’t now, but there definitely wasn’t anything like it then. I thought maybe the power of Swartzwelder would be enough. [Laughs.] And John Rich…I mean, I’m not saying that a director is always enough to get something picked up, but he was a huge part of television history. He directed The Dick Van Dyke Show, man! In fact, I worked with Phil Carey on One Life to Live, and he knew John Rich and had worked for him on westerns back then, so we had that connection between us. But, anyway, yeah, I thought it was gonna go. It was quirky and different.

I know I made that joke earlier about how I had a bad feeling it was gonna go, but, y’know, you never know when you’re gonna get more work. I’ve heard actors say, “Man, I want to get off of this show,” and I’m always, like, “What are you, nuts?” [Laughs.] But if it had gone, I’m not kidding you, with the heat, it woulda been torture…emphasis on the torch! It was hot! We were in that gear, and everyone was always struggling to find shade in between shooting. But I would’ve done it for seven years if they’d wanted me to, because it was still fun. And I was really surprised when it wasn’t picked up. But, y’know, I got to do something written by Swartzwelder, and Steve was great, so…oh, hey, you know, I just remembered something else: when we first started, he gave me a book on cowboy characters in film and on television. It was pretty charming.

Was that Steve or Swartzwelder who gave it to you?

Steve did. What, are you kidding? Swartzwelder just gave me a stare. [Laughs.]

Will Harris is a current contributor to the Onion AV Club, the websites Bullz-Eye.com and Popdose.com, and TV Week Magazine in Vancouver, BC, and he has also written pieces for Vulture and The New York Post. In addition, he is a freelancer for The Virginian-Pilot, the daily newspaper in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where he currently resides with his wife, daughter, dog, guinea pig, and turtle…and, yes, with all those animals, it is a wonder he gets any writing done at all.


    • What’s funny is that I sent the link to another “Simpsons” scribe, Mike Reiss, and although he thought the article was a lot of fun, he said, “I’m tickled by this Pynchon-esque aura Swartzwelder has achieved. When you meet him, he’s just an affable, chatty guy…which is what the ‘Simpsons’ writers said about Pynchon himself.”

  1. Stupendous article. I’d never heard of this pilot so I’m glad I read
    your this, and glad that you went all out and wrote the defining piece
    about it. I’m a great big fan of the Simpsons and Swartzwelder (READ
    ALL OF HIS BOOKS, PEOPLE!), and actually right now I happen to be going
    through another cult-obsessed short-lived comedy-western on Fox in the
    90s, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. It also is great but just shy
    of attaining that iconic angle.. or pace.. or something. Oh well.

    • It’s pretty easy to write a defining article when there’s almost no previous definition…but thanks!

  2. Wow, I had no idea Steve Kearney ever ended up on U.S. television. Pretty commonplace for Aussie actors nowadays, but back then it was way more rare (especially if your background was in stand-up and stage comedy, like his was). iMDB suggests he hasn’t acted for a decade or so, though, which seems a shame.

    • He’s got a production company in Melbourne, so he’s still in the business. And I’ve learned during our recent conversations via email and Skype that he was actually poised to be in a couple of different pilots, including one with Alan King. Hoping to get more details on that for a future column. :-)

  3. As usual, I’m blown away by how much fun info you get from your interviews! From All in the Family anecdotes to Rupert Murdoch tales…

  4. Great article! Congrats on getting JS to communicate with you! And I’ll echo what “Poophead” said: get all of Schwartzwelder’s books!

    I’ll just have to look thru the rest of this Antenna Free TV…

  5. Is it just me or is that Sean William Scott who gets the cigar shot and then reports to McCandles? Linked here from Splitsider. Great article!

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