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How ‘Yellowstone’ creator Taylor Sheridan upended the TV industry

The Big Sky’s the limit.

yellowstone-taylor-sheridan

The phenomenal success of Paramount Network’s Montana-set “Yellowstone” has launched co-creator Taylor Sheridan into sparsely populated TV territory — a kingmaker on par with multi-show creative titans such as Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling and, most recently, “Law & Order” guru Dick Wolf.

Sheridan, 52 — an actor by trade, with a guest-starring resume dating back to 1995 that spans shows from “Veronica Mars” to “Sons of Anarchy” — now oversees an empire of nine TV projects, including “Yellowstone” spinoffs “1923” and “6666,” and upcoming shows starring Hollywood A-listers Helen Mirren, Sylvester Stallone, David Oyelowo, Harrison Ford and Billy Bob Thornton.

“This volume of work is not sustainable for a long period of time,” Sheridan told Variety. “But it’s an opportunity to tell stories the way I want to tell them with a creative freedom that just doesn’t exist in this space.”

Sheridan, an acclaimed horseman who was raised on a ranch in West Texas, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns when he co-created “Yellowstone” with John Linson. The modern-day Western premiered in 2018 with Oscar-winner Kevin Costner, who stars in his first-ever television series as Montana ranch owner/family patriarch John Dutton. The show boasts a strong supporting cast including Cole Hauser, Kelly Reilly and Wes Bentley.

Kevin Costner as John Dutton in Yellowstone
Kevin Costner as John Dutton in “Yellowstone,” which was co-created by Taylor Sheridan.

Costner saw the show’s potential immediately. “I saw that the dialogue had a fun, realistic approach to it,” he told Variety. “It was raw. It was dysfunctional … it was set against the backdrop of mountains and rivers and valleys and people on horseback, which is very appealing … Whether people want to admit it or not, some people don’t realize that that way of life is still alive. This meat doesn’t get to our cities without somebody getting up early in the morning and late at night taking care of those animals in some way. It’s a way of life still.”

Chris McCarthy — President/CEO, Paramount Media Networks & MTV Entertainment Studios — saw a similar appeal. “People think of Westerns as good guys and bad guys, and this is really such a different show,” he told “CBS Sunday Morning”. “When you see the entire world, you get it. He mentally creates his own world in the TV series. He creates that world for himself. And, you know, he’s unique that way.”

The big sky’s the limit for producer Taylor Sheridan since co-creating “Yellowstone,” cable’s top-rated show.
WireImage

The series did indeed strike a chord with viewers and put Paramount Network, formerly Spike TV, on the map. “Yellowstone” viewership has risen steadily, having averaged more than 2 million viewers in Season 1 before taking off like a rocket: Last fall, the Season 4 premiere snared more than 14 million viewers, numbers not seen on cable since the heyday of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

That feat is even more impressive when you take into account the mass migration of viewers to streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video et al.), which has decimated broadcast and cable networks. Sparked by Sheridan, Paramount Network has bucked the trend like a wild bronco.

To date, “Yellowstone,” despite all its success, has garnered only one Emmy nomination — in 2021, for Outstanding Production Design — but that is expected to change July 12 when nominations for the 74th Emmy Awards are announced.

Tim McGraw as James Dutton in the “Yellowstone” prequel series “1883.”
Tim McGraw as James Dutton in the “Yellowstone” prequel series “1883.”
Emerson Miller/Paramount+

“Yellowstone” spawned its first prequel series, “1883,” which was also created by Sheridan. It premiered last year on Paramount+ with stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton, John Dutton’s 19th century forebears, and included cameos from Tom Hanks — Tom Hanks! — and Thornton. The series was popular and critically acclaimed, but ended after its first season … for a reason.

“We wanted to make a 10-hour movie, and that’s what we did,” Sheridan told Deadline.

Also coming down the “Yellowstone” spinoff pipeline are “1932” — a prequel starring Oscar-winners Mirren and Ford about the Dutton family during Prohibition and the Great Depression — and “6666,” a present-day series set at the titular ranch (no cast members have been announced yet; there are rumors it will film at the Texas ranch Sheridan purchased in January).

“I don’t think of any of these as spinoffs, but rather as complete stories that have common root,” Sheridan told Deadline. “My goal with the next one would be that you could never have seen ‘1883’ or ‘Yellowstone’ and still have a fully realized experience as a viewer.”

Oh, and Season 5 of “Yellowstone” premieres in November — leading into another Sheridan series, “Tulsa King,” a Paramount+ mob drama starring Stallone as a New York mafioso banished to Oklahoma. Dana Delany will co-star.

Sylvester Stallone stars in “Tulsa King” as a New York mobster “banished” to Oklahoma.
Brian Douglas/Paramount+
Jeremy Renner as Mike McClusky in “Mayor of Kingstown,” which has been renewed for a second season on Paramount+.
CBS

In addition to those projects, Sheridan, along with Hugh Dillon, co-created “Mayor of Kingstown.” It’s a non-“Yellowstone” drama available to stream on Paramount+ that stars Jeremy Renner, Dianne Wiest and Kyle Chandler as a family of power brokers in Michigan. It’s been renewed for a second season.

“He’s the real deal,” Sheridan’s producing partner, David Glasser, told Variety. “His word is his bond. Loyalty is everything, and then the handshake means something. That’s who he is. And as long as you operate in that world, it’s great. And creatively, he blows my mind every single time.”

Sheridan is also behind the upcoming shows “Lioness,” a drama based on a real CIA operation starring Zoe Saldana; “Bass Reeves,” in which Oyelowo plays the titular legendary Wild West lawman and deputy US Marshal; and “Land Man,” a West Texas-based oil-rig drama adapted from the podcast “Boomtown” and starring Thornton that’s described as “an upstairs/downstairs story of roughnecks and wildcat billionaires fueling a boom so big, it’s reshaping our climate, our economy and our geopolitics.”

Taylor Sheridan (right) with “1883” co-star Sam Elliott.
Getty Images
Taylor Sheridan (right) with “1883” co-star Sam Elliott.
Getty Images

“It’s ludicrous that I’m working with these people,” Sheridan told “CBS Sunday Morning.” “It’s fantastically insane.” He attributes his success to being around the business long enough to recognize his strengths — and realizing he’d gone as far as he could with his acting career. (He still acts occasionally, including a recurring role as horseman Travis Wheatley on “Yellowstone”).

“I think stubbornness, a refusal to fail,” he said. “An interesting thing about Hollywood is, if you let it, if you listen, it will tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing … I have never seen anyone bang their head against the wall for 20 years and then make it. I’ve never seen that. I’ve seen it take eight years; I’ve seen it take 10 years. But I’ve never seen it take 20 … I had come to where the best I was ever gonna be was, you know, 10th on the call sheet.”

Not anymore — not by a longshot.

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