Now that is one ugly hombre. Say howdy to the outlaw Butch Cavendish, the ruthless sidewinder who leads the Cavendish Gang in director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. That’s a face that barbed wire might improve — in fact, this black-hat Butch is so unsavory that he could be a refugee from Verbinski’s previous project, Rango, the Oscar-winning 2010 animated film that ditched the standard “cute animal” approach and instead devoted its pixels to create some of the most butt-ugly varmints in Hollywood history.
In this just-released character poster from Disney, it’s a bit hard to tell, but that is veteran character actor William Fichtner behind that Cavendish glower. Many moviegoers will remember Fichtner as the defiant, shotgun-toting bank manager who crosses paths with the Joker in the opening sequence of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Fichtner also had memorable turns in Go, Armageddon, Crash, Heat and Black Hawk Down and played the Melrose-reviving producer Phil Yagoda on Entourage.
None of those roles, however, brought as much heritage as Cavendish part. The desperado was introduced in some of the earliest versions of The Lone Ranger mythology, which began in Detroit, of all places, back in January 1933 when WXYZ-AM introduced a masked man whose crusade against crime was shaped by a traumatizing act of violence and the cold-blooded murder of a family member. It was Cavendish and his gang that ambushed a group of Texas Rangers and left them for dead. One of the lawman lived, however, and soon donned a mask to seek justice as an anonymous vigilante on a white horse. Cavendish would be the mystery rider’s key nemesis in books, comics, cartoons and movies, including the 1981 Disney movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which starred Christopher Lloyd as a very different Cavendish. (Instead of malicious bandit he was a disgraced major from the Union army who assembles a small mercenary army and kidnaps President U.S. Grant.)
The traditional origin tale takes some twists and follows very different trails as far as tone in this new Jerry Bruckheimer-produced revival, which arrives in theaters on July 3 as the most expensive western in Hollywood history — and one of the year’s most intriguing blockbuster gambles. The masked Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto (Johnny Depp) are frenemies this time around as Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe looked for a subversive but spirited take on the squeaky clean FDR-era source material.
Fichtner has some of that same winking spirit as he describes his view of Cavendish. “Everybody has been asking me lately about the role and I’m hearing from people ‘Wow, he’s really ugly’ or ‘He’s such a bad guy, he’s the worst.’ And I’m always like, ‘Stop, stop — he’s not that, he’s misunderstood.”
There’s always room on the range for disfigured tough-guy cowboys. In True Grit in 2010, Jeff Bridges gave an eye for an eye while Barry Pepper matched him with a tooth for a rotten tooth; that same year Josh Brolin went through the scarring experience known as Jonah Hex but the less said about that the better. For Fichtner, this villain role represented a different sort of rodeo, as least as far as craft and his own career experience.
“Usually with a character, I’d look for who they are and what they care about and really find them and ground them out in a human sort of way,” the actor says. “A lot of times if I’m playing what would be considered the bad guy or the heavy guy, I can’t usually do it until I figure out what they care about. And what’s important to them explains why they do what they do. It’s like that old expression: A jerk doesn’t know he’s a jerk. But it was different the first time I read the script for The Lone Ranger.”
Instead of character motivations, it was the story’s machinations that caught the eye of Fichtner.
“The things that drive him were there and recognizable but more than anything, what I loved was him as a puzzle piece that fits into this story and how that story has this amazing scale and power. And the power of the western, the great western-ness of it all can’t be overlooked. I’m the gunslinger in The Lone Ranger. When the horse comes up and stops and there’s that guy, everybody knows who the gunslinger is. And I’m doing that. I’m that guy in this movie. And that’s really exciting.”