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Sanderson has firm grip on ‘Deadwood’

His weaselly character is unafraid to be a wimp
/ Source: The Associated Press

Oddly enough, there’s a certain nobility to E.B. Farnum.

As played by William Sanderson on HBO’s western drama “Deadwood,” Farnum is a weasel — but devoutly so. He’s a schemer who never gives himself a day off. He’s unafraid to be a wimp.

Mayor and hotelier in 1877-era Deadwood, S.D., Farnum does what has to be done. That includes sucking up to Al Swearengen, the thuggish city father of this godforsaken gold-mining camp, whom E.B. serves as a minion and ever-ready object of scorn.

“I am a born follower,” he tells Swearengen in his cornpone twitter. Farnum is a survivor. There’s nobility in that.

“We have that in common,” Sanderson declares. “As my wife says, ‘You’ve lasted 25 years in L.A.’ It’s a bit of a miracle! You know how Einstein said you could see life as all miracles. Or not.”

But it doesn’t take an Einstein to understand E.B., says the man who created “Deadwood.” Summing up Farnum as a blend of “the voraciously selfish with a kind of sweet-spiritedness,” David Milch credits him with “obstinate finality. He is irreducibly himself.”

Now “Deadwood” fans and newcomers can savor him, along with his many fellow denizens of Deadwood, in a marathon encore of the second season’s dozen episodes. They’ll air Tuesday through Friday, 9 p.m. to midnight EDT, on HBO2.

The Peabody Award-winning “Deadwood” is a rich, rawboned pageant of vagabonds and dreamers. It’s sometimes shocking, sometimes bracing, and, while never angling for laughs, often very funny — especially in scenes that pair Ian McShane as the thunderous Swearengen with Sanderson as his twitchy sidekick.

Long way from Larry, Darryl and DarrylOf course, Sanderson has long been known for comedy. Playing bumpkin handyman Larry on the 1980s sitcom “Newhart,” he cracked up the audience just by introducing himself and his brothers — the nonspeaking Darryl and Darryl — each time the threesome entered a room.

But he has also tackled dramatic roles in films including “Blade Runner” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” on TV in the miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and its sequel as well as “The Executioner’s Song,” and, early on, in a number of off-Broadway stage productions.

Billy Sanderson had grown up in Memphis as a troubled, rebellious youth. He served a hitch in the Army, attended Memphis State University, then enrolled in law school.

Then he got hooked on acting.

Why? “The pretty girls,” he says. “I was very, very shy, and I’d have panic attacks if I had to talk publicly. But, somehow, the girls — there were always pretty girls around the theater. And it worked! As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Everything true is based on need.”’

Sanderson talks like that: In roundabout bursts equipped with pertinent quotations and a Tennessee accent, his gaze averted as he summons his thoughts.

Over lunch in Manhattan recently, he is insistently obliging, gracious to a fault. And though hesitant to pinpoint his age (fiftysomething, “but can you write that I said I was 28?”), he is frank about his lifelong insecurities and self-esteem issues.

“I feel like I’m gonna dry up, every time I go to work,” he admits. “Will I have it? How much longer can I do it?” Then he apologizes. “Does that sound melancholy? It’s raining — I blame it on the weather.”

I fought the lawOn hitting New York to break into acting, he took classes, seized any role he could get, and tended bar in between.

He loved Manhattan. (And still does. “Correct me if I’m wrong: It’s an exciting city!”) But he was a drinker and carouser, and repeatedly clashed with the law.

“They put me on probation,” he recalls, “and then I got in a little trouble again a year later, and one of the plainclothes detectives said, ’Man, you back here?’ I said, ’Yeah.’ And when somebody didn’t show up in court to press charges, he said, ’You’re really lucky, ’cause you’d have been going to Rikers.’

“I lived on the edge. I did so many crazy things. But somehow I just escaped, each time. Somebody’s always helped me. Always. I’m not a self-made man.”

One major ally: His wife of 12 years, whom he spied in 1989 in a Las Vegas casino while both were on vacation.

“Sharon looked like a woman I’d met in the Village, who was out of my league but still condescended to have a drink. After 20 minutes she was thinking, ‘This guy’s too crazy.’

“Then, years later, I met someone who reminded me of her. Sharon is very smart,” he adds while she looks on lovingly. “I hope she doesn’t leave me.”

It seems Sanderson has an appetite for worry. Another thing he worries is, come season 3 of “Deadwood,” Farnum might be living on borrowed time.

But Milch, who knows all, dismisses that prospect.

“Farnum is one of the essentials on the show,” says Milch. “And every time I see Billy play him, he just lifts me up.”

What could be clearer: That’s what you call noble.