LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Actor Gerald McRaney's place in TV history is secured by his steady work in shows ranging from "Simon & Simon" in the 1980s to an upcoming fall drama for CBS, "Jericho."
But McRaney, it turns out, also represents a nexus between television's former and current incarnations of the Old West, the airbrushed "Gunsmoke" and HBO's pocks-and-all series "Deadwood."
McRaney, who joined "Deadwood" as a guest star last season, had the honor of being the final bad guy on "Gunsmoke" to face U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in "that classic showdown with two of you drawing against each other," McRaney recalled.
His character was killed in the 1975 episode and good prevailed once again in Dodge City. "Gunsmoke" (1956-75), although seen as TV's first adult-oriented Western, was so upright that Miss Kitty, who in the original radio version seemed to be a madam, became merely a saloon owner with an usual number of female employees.
In the messy, forthright world of "Deadwood," created by David Milch, a hooker is a hooker and virtue and vice share breathing room in the ragged South Dakota town of Deadwood in the late 1870s.
McRaney plays mining baron George Hearst, among the historically based characters populating the drama that returned Sunday for its third and last 12-episode season. HBO said this week the series will conclude with a pair of two-hour specials, as yet unscheduled. (What happened Sunday night? Find out on EW.com.)
The gulf between "Deadwood" and TV's previous takes on the wild West measures about as wide as the one separating McRaney's G-rated body of broadcast TV work from the HBO series.
Known for such characters as easygoing Rick Simon on the private-eye series, a Marine in "Major Dad" and a family man on "Promised Land," the actor is aware some were surprised by his jump to the coarse and brutal "Deadwood."
No mystery, McRaney said: "It's because it's good."
So is the Mississippi-born actor. Wearing the comfortably well-padded look of a 19th-century man of power and wealth, McRaney proves slyly adept at portraying a Hearst whose hands stay clean while brutal acts are carried out on his behalf.
Researching the real Hearst (father of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), McRaney found he was likely less erudite than depicted on "Deadwood" but as intent on accumulating gold and silver, dubbed "the color" on the show.
"The money didn't matter to him," McRaney concluded. "He was like a stamp collector .... It wasn't a matter of 'What is the value of all these stamps?' but, 'I have them and other people don't.' "
We have to find the curves in there'
The series offers only an interpretation of Hearst, McRaney said -- and the plum role of his career, bar none. He's a featured player throughout this season.
"I don't mean to diminish any of the people I've worked with. The circumstances that get dictated in network television just don't permit the kind of luxuriousness that we have in creating 'Deadwood,' " the actor said.
That is measured in time, money and artistic freedom -- which includes a chorus of profanity that some viewers find wondrous and others, inevitably, off-putting. But it's all in context, said McRaney, whose character holds his tongue.
"The guys who use a lot of foul language are pimps. And the people around them are assistant pimps and whores, and they were not known for their lofty language," he said.
For him, the drama means savoring the layered conflict and offbeat elegance of language provided by creator-executive producer Milch and other writers. It's dialogue that at once seems as classic as Shakespeare and as new and rhythmic as rap.
"David has a very specific take on what he wants," McRaney said. "If a thing is too on the money, if a thing is too direct, that's not good enough. We have to find the curves in there. And if it's too well-defined, let's some fine emptiness to play -- to give it texture, and also to give it human imperfection."
Showing a touch of the poet himself, McRaney compares Milch to "one of those great Arab carpet-weavers who purposely will weave imperfections in, because only God is perfect."
McRaney, 57, married to actress Delta Burke (they met on her series, "Designing Women," and recently celebrated their 17th anniversary) and himself a father, is sensitive to the fact that some find the show's blunt vulgarity offensive.
While early prime time on the networks should be a family-friendly zone, McRaney is eager to make the point that it's ultimately up to the individual to decide what entertainment to allow into their home.
"It's a very dangerous thing to do," he said of further federal regulation of TV content, including proposals that were floated in Washington to extend control from broadcast to cable channels.
"I'm a little tired of government treating us all like children. I'm a conservative and I'm for limited government. This idea of telling me what I can see, what I can read -- don't go there," McRaney said.
Keep the kids away from "Deadwood" and change channels if you don't like it, he advised.
But be mindful of what you might miss, such as an upcoming scene that McRaney cited as a favorite in which Hearst argues "the case for greed and rampant capitalism and exploitation and why it will save the world."
Clearly, one man's music can be another's profanity.