Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and HBO filmmakers are about to point their cameras at one of Fort Smith’s most beloved — and most important — historical figures.
Executives at HBO recently approved the production of a new mini-series focusing on the life and legacy of Bass Reeves, the first African-American west of the Mississippi River who worked as a deputy marshal from 1875 to 1907.
Reeves, who arrested more than 3,000 felons in the Fort Smith and former Indian Territory regions during his time as a lawman for Judge Isaac C. Parker’s federal court in Fort Smith, is the "perfect" subject for the yet-to-be-titled mini-series, which will feature Freeman, Lori McCreary (Revelations Entertainment) and "Grey’s Anatomy" co-star James Pickens Jr., said Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears.
"I had heard a mention from (local resident and Bass Reeves re-enactor) Baridi Nkokheli that this was in the works," said Spears, a committee member of the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative, the organization responsible for the creation and installation of the Bass Reeves monument at Ross Pendergraft Park. "This looks like this is going to pan out, and I’m very excited about it.
"I’m excited because Bass Reeves was so interesting," he added. "He was a former slave who could speak Indian languages, but he couldn’t read or write."
Nancy Lesser, a representative from HBO’s publicity department, said the show’s producers were unavailable for interviews since the project "is only in the development stage." She added that HBO and show representatives would be available for interviews when the project progressed.
"I’m really hoping they do some of the filming here," said Spears. "I hope they don’t do it like ‘True Grit’ and film it in Texas or Colorado. It would be great if they would film it here in Fort Smith."
Created from a new script from John Sayles ("Lone Star") based on Art T. Burton’s biography, "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves," the mini-series is predicted to be produced as a drama, according to a news story posted at deadline.com.
"I understand it to be a drama, and not a documentary," Spears said of the new project.
"And I knew that Morgan Freeman has been interested in this project for some time," he added. "Morgan Freeman did an interview with Charlie Rose early on, and Charlie asked Morgan if there was a project he would like to do that he hasn’t done yet. Morgan said he wanted to do a project on Bass Reeves."
Until a few years ago, Reeves’ story seemingly was ignored by the majority of people living outside of western Arkansas, Spears said. The Bass Reeves monument, Burton’s book and the new U.S. Marshals Museum all helped spread the word about Reeves and his importance in local and regional history, he said.
"There’s a great deal of momentum going with this," Spears said of Reeves’ growing popularity. "It’s wonderful that all of this is spreading the story and the legend of Bass Reeves. It’s just wonderful this is all happening."
Lisa Conrad Frost, superintendent for the Fort Smith National Historic Site, agreed.
"Bass Reeves is a signature story here at the park, and it would be great to tell the stories of Bass Reeves that haven’t been told in the past," Frost said. "I had heard in the past, by word of mouth, that people were thinking about doing a mini-series on Bass Reeves. I haven’t heard if they will film here in Fort Smith, but that would be good."
Although the project is scheduled to be a six-part mini-series, the life of Reeves could fill multiple movies, Spears said. One of the many interesting aspects of the former slave’s life was his ability to create and use effective disguises that would "throw off" the targeted suspects and everyone else, he said.
"No one then would suspect this man showing up in tattered clothes and shuffling along," Spears said. "And then he’s ready to clamp down the cuffs on someone bad."
Reeves seemingly never let anything stand in the way of justice, even when family members were involved, he said. Reeves even arrested his own son, who had murdered his wife, Spears said.
"The mini-series will help get the word out on Bass Reeves," he said. "He was a true hero of the Old West, right here in Sebastian and Crawford counties."
Spears said he’s thankful that Freeman, McCreary and Pickens sustained their interest in creating the new mini-series, and called the project a "benefit" for the Fort Smith community. The project should "broaden" the public’s knowledge and appreciation of Reeves and his accomplishments, he said.
"James Pickens bought the rights to Art’s book, and Pickens was supposed to be here in Fort Smith for the Bass Reeves statue dedication in 2012, but he had knee surgery and couldn’t make it," Spears said. "Hopefully, we will get that visit from Mr. Pickens."