Wyoming author Craig Johnson said he recently found out just how popular his main character, fictional Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire, has become.
The Ucross rancher, who has seen his award-winning series of eight Western mysteries turned into a hit A&E television series, “Longmire,” was paying for lunch at a Red Lodge, Mont., cafe. He noticed the cashier intently staring at his ball cap, which was emblazoned with the words, “Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department.”
The woman asked him where he got the hat. He didn’t want her to think he actually was a law enforcement officer, so Johnson explained, “It’s not a real county.”
“The hell it’s not,” she sternly told the writer. “It’s Walt Longmire’s county.”
Now, realizing she was a fan, he introduced himself as Craig Johnson.
“She goes, ‘So?’” the author recalled. “I said, ‘I’m the one who writes the books,’ and she says, ‘What books?’
“I said, ‘The books the TV show is based on.’ And she goes, ‘I didn’t know there were books.’”
Johnson paused as the audience of about 100 of his die-hard, book-reading fans laughed Friday night at the Natrona County Public Library. “All I could think of is, this is the way my life is going to be from now on,” he said. “I’m going to be the man behind the man.”
Johnson didn’t compare himself to Rodney “I don’t get no respect” Dangerfield, but he easily could have. He said when the show’s producers were trying to find an actor to play Walt, they sent him DVDs of the auditions.
The last one in the batch was an Australian actor named Robert Taylor, who wound up getting the role. Johnson said he liked the fact that Taylor’s 6-foot-4 frame and weathered look matched the physical description of the sheriff in his books. He was completely sold on the actor getting the part when he noticed that Taylor was the only one at the auditions who bothered to remove his cowboy hat when he entered a woman’s home.
“That’s our guy,’” Johnson remembers saying. Then he heard his wife Judy remark, “Oh my — he’s handsome!”
“He’s kind of like a TV version of you,” she told her chagrined husband. “Taller, better looking, with a better voice.”
Asked what is the biggest difference between the TV series and his novels, Johnson said, “Everybody on the show is better looking than the people in my head.”
“Longmire” has completed its 10-episode first season, but will be back for 13 more beginning in June. Johnson said that unlike most authors who have their books adapted to TV or movies, he’s been kept in the loop and is extremely happy with the finished product.
“They made me an executive creative consultant, which means I know where the porta-potties are on the set,” he joked.
Most of the show is filmed in northern New Mexico, primarily because of its better climate, but a few scenes have been shot in Wyoming. Johnson said he hopes there will be more footage of the Cowboy State next season.
On the set in New Mexico, Johnson and his wife had the opportunity to appear as extras sitting in the Red Pony Bar and Grill. He said Judy is still mad at him “for ruining her magic moment to be a TV star.”
Johnson turned down the offer. “It was kind of like that scene in ‘Field of Dreams,’ when Moonlight Graham starts to step off the ball field and he realizes that he can’t. It felt really weird,” Johnson said. “I thought, I’ve made this world, I created these people, I can’t step into it. The producers were shocked; they said every author does it. But not me.”
Johnson said one of the unexpected reactions to the TV show is the impact it has had on sales of Rainier beer, an inexpensive, working-man’s beer that is Walt’s favorite beverage and also his brew of choice.
“I figured Walt’s not a blueberry, microbrew kind of guy,” his creator said. Johnson always charges the same “honorary fee” for speaking engagements at Wyoming libraries — “a six-pack of Rainier, cans preferred.” His talk here netted him two six-packs, which brought a smile to his face.
He learned during a lecture in Cheyenne about half-way through the first season that because of the show’s popularity — each episode has been watched by more than 4 million viewers — the brewery had completely sold out of Rainier.
The owners had absolutely no idea what spurred their sales, Johnson said — they had never heard of the books or the TV series.
“I’ve always dreamed of drinking a brewery out of beer,” Johnson said, laughing. “It took a TV show to do it.”
In addition to many funny anecdotes about the show, Johnson shared his upcoming projects with the audience. His next book, “A Serpent’s Tooth,” will be published in May and is set near the Teapot Dome oil field. “A polygamy group moves in and starts causing some problems for Walt,” he noted. “I doubt it will be a big seller in Utah.”
Also on tap are a short story collection and a novella titled, “The Spirit of Steamboat.”
“I’m not resting on my laurels,” he said.
The producers of “Longmire,” he added, believe Walt is a character with a lot of staying power. “They said they believe he could be around for the next 10 years,” Johnson said. “That would be wonderful.”
Yes, it would — both for the author and his legion of readers who have grown to love inhabiting Walt’s world, whether reading the 400-page novels or watching the hour-long shows. Long may he run.
Kerry Drake is the opinion editor of the Star-Tribune. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.