Robert Taylor Robert Taylor

It's been a long time since TV was populated by righteous dudes of few words in cowboy hats. Timothy Olyphant's lawmen on Deadwood and Justified have a vengeful streak, and on Hatfields & McCoys you couldn't hit a hero with a Winchester if you tried. That's the hole Longmire executive producers Hunt Baldwin, John Coveny and Greer Shephard wanted to fill.

"After a long period of TV's most interesting characters being antiheroes, it seemed fresh to dig into an old-fashioned American hero," says Baldwin. "One of the problems I've got with a lot of protagonists these days is that you can't really tell the good guys from the bad guys," adds Craig Johnson, whose popular Walt Longmire novels are the basis of the series. "People won't have that problem with Walt. He is a hero." Which means you can count on the Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff to always do the right thing. Isn't that refreshing?

"We knew we were on to something really good," says Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Walt's old friend Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne barkeep looking out for his tribe's interests. "The wild card was if the viewing public was ready for a contemporary Western." It seems they were: 4.1 million viewers tuned in to Longmire's June 3 debut, making it the network's most watched scripted show ever. It's already been picked up for Season 2.

To headline this all-American Western, the producers cast Robert Taylor — an actor from Australia. "The hardest traits to find were humility and modesty," shrugs Shephard. "Robert has that in spades."

The former oil rig worker-turned-actor (The Matrix) — he's the kind of guy who addresses a woman with "Ma'am" — was immediately drawn to the plainspoken character. "Walt's a good guy," says Taylor. "He's lost his wife and he's soldiering on. And if he didn't have his daughter, Cady [Cassidy Freeman], he'd probably just take a bottle of whiskey, a good book, wander off into the woods and never come back."

But there are so many wrongs to right. As the season goes on, the stoic sheriff will be tested on several fronts, especially when he learns Cady has been hooking up with the studly deputy (Bailey Chase), who's running against him in the upcoming sheriff election. "That betrayal is going to explode," Shephard reveals. But Walt has skeletons of his own, some of which are revealed in tonight's episode about the search for a girl escaping a cult. And when a visitor arrives to see Walt in the August 5 finale, the still-grieving widower may finally have to face the truth about his wife's death.

Trouble also brews at the nearby poverty-plagued Cheyenne reservation when plans are proposed for a potential casino promoted by the wealthy Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez). "He's every bit Walt's equal," says Baldwin, "intelligent, charismatic — and a possible nemesis."

Meanwhile, the good-natured interplay between Walt and his brash married deputy Vic Moretti
(Katee Sackhoff) could take a new turn. "Their relationship deepens," teases Baldwin, "and it's confusing for both of them." Especially when Vic realizes she's not so happy when Walt meets a new woman. Jokes Sackhoff, "We love each other, but we annoy the crap out of each other!"

Don't fear, says Phillips. The series will remain about "how justice wins out and how these characters carry that with them as a badge of honor." Freeman has other ideas why fans are tuning in and loving Longmire. "It's never a bad thing to see a guy in nice-fitting jeans and a cowboy hat," she says. "And there's more than one in our show. They give cowboys a good name." Yes, ma'am.

Longmire airs Sunday at 10/9c on A&E.

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