In early October of 2021, I received an out-of-the-blue call from my friend Dallas Sonnier, offering me a role in a movie called “Terror on the Prairie.” The film, produced by The Daily Wire, was set to star Gina Carano, someone whose story of cancellation I had followed with great interest. I too, in my own small way, had been feeling “cancelled,” albeit not so publicly.
I had felt many times that I was being overlooked for roles that I was right for because of my public political stances, which are at odds with mainstream Hollywood. There was nothing I could prove — I had no direct evidence or confrontations confirming it — but I am a character actor, not a star. No one who refused to cast me for political reasons would need to make it public, because they could just say, behind closed doors, “Not that guy.” They wouldn’t have to explain it, or confront me. The movie could be made with or without me, so why bother?
When I read the script, I was shocked at the size, the scope and the horrible beauty of the role of the Captain. He was flawed, damaged, ruthless, eloquent, charming and deadly. It felt Shakespearean. It felt daunting, terrifying — and irresistible. It was unquestionably the greatest film role I had ever been offered. Within two hours, I called Dallas back and said “Yes.” I was honored.
With only ten days to prepare, I immediately put every aspect of my life on hold. My wife, Leslie, and I had recently purchased a new home near Nashville, both to be closer to our families in Kentucky and North Carolina as well as to prepare ourselves for the impending collapse of California, where we had lived for nearly thirty years — so I could take off for six weeks and take on this tremendous opportunity.
I flew to Montana for the first read-through and met the amazing cast. I knew of Gina, and was proud to stand with her, as well as Tyler Fischer, a young comedian I had followed and enjoyed long before I met him. Gabriel-Kane Day-Lewis, the son of one of the most famous and accomplished actors of our time, was there doing his very first movie role, along with the great Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, an MMA fighter I had followed over the years. And there was an actor there named Heath Freeman, whom I met for the first time.
The read-through went very well, and there was a feeling during and after the reading that we had all wound up in something unique and strangely beautiful, something that could be a defining moment for all of us.
As the evening wound down, we went back to have a few drinks at the place that Heath, who played a member of my gang in the film, had rented for the shoot. We had a blast; Cowboy and Heath practiced lassoing techniques in the backyard, while the rest of us laughed, talked, and had a great time bonding together. After a while, everyone had left the party except for me and Heath. (I’m usually the last one to leave a party, as my long-suffering wife will attest.) At a certain point, right before I finished my last whiskey of the night, Heath looked at me and said: “I hope you are ready for this.”
I was stunned by his intensity, because up to that point, it had all been fun and games. And I didn’t really know this man. This was the first day I had ever met him. I didn’t know this guy, as they say, from Adam.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“This is an Oscar-caliber role,” Heath said. “You better be ready to bring it.”
I don’t remember everything we said after that, but I tried to laugh it off and say something dissembling like, “Well, I know how great this role is, and I hope I can fulfill it.” But as I went home that night, I thought, in my arrogant heart, “Who is this guy? Why is he challenging me this way? Who the hell does he think he is?”
At that moment, I didn’t really know what to make of Heath Freeman. I thought, “Is he competing with me? Does he want to be better than me? Am I going to have to watch out for this guy? Is he an ally, or is he an adversary?”
And of course, that said more about me and my insecurities about tackling this role than it said about Heath.
As the shoot began, and we all started working together as a family, I came to realize that Heath was all about the work, the craft, and the art of acting, and that the only reason he challenged me the way he did was because he wanted to serve the film.
The more I talked to Heath and got to know him, the more I realized how similar he and I were in our respective paths of becoming professional actors. We both had come from families with deeply religious roots. There were lots of preachers and ministers in Heath’s family, just like there were in mine. We both grew up in small towns with dreams of being an actor. Heath, like me, was the only person in his family to ever want to be an actor. We had both struck out on our own to pursue a path that everyone in our families thought was so foreign, it was insane. And Heath, like me, had no real role models who could show him the way.
We had both started in the theater, where we first fell in love with acting. We had done many, many plays in our youth; we had grown up auditioning for plays, getting roles and losing roles, living for the next play, the next role, the next chance to act. Both of us had come out of nowhere, with no connections, no one encouraging us, no one around us having even the slightest idea about how to help us get to where we wanted to go. We both became actors out of sheer force of will. We wanted to be something that seemed unattainable at times, and we floundered, failed, screwed up, persevered and kept going, because, for us, there was no choice. It was all we wanted to be. And we were either going to do it or fail. There was no backup plan.
And there we were, doing it. We were so grateful and excited, and we shared that with each other.
We bonded over the fact that we had both done plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, he in a production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and me in a production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” We both had worked with the legendary, consummate actress Laurie Metcalf, and we laughed and told stories about her and how wonderful she was to work with.
We also talked about how Heath had rediscovered his love for acting in the last few years — how he had recently found a great teacher who inspired him and taught him a better way to analyze scripts and prepare characters. His enthusiasm inspired me. I realized my old, tired a** had become a little bored and cynical about my craft in the last few years, with my opportunities at roles I found interesting dwindling, both due to my age and my politics being at odds with the woke Hollywood bullies. Heath’s optimism and renewed love for his craft was infectious.
He made me want to be a better actor. I had not felt that desire in a while.
The intensity of the shooting schedule for “Terror on the Prairie” meant that we spent almost every minute of every day together. The quality of the people on the set, the crew as well as the cast, made even the most difficult days fun and enjoyable, and I grew to love many people during the shoot. It was like being a kid and going to a “movie camp,” making lifelong friends in six weeks. Halfway through the shoot, I told my wife, Leslie, how much I liked Heath, and how I thought that I had made a friend who I would always stay in touch with, someone who I wanted to be a part of my life forever.
At one point during the shoot, I got very ill. There were a couple of days where the schedule had to be shuffled to give me a chance to recover. Through all of those days, Heath was right there with me, asking me if he could help. He took on physical feats in the script that I could not execute, and he did it in a way that made sense and made the film better. My role required a lot of text, a lot of talking. Every morning, Heath would come into the makeup trailer and say, “You want to run ’em?” He ran lines with me, coached me, helped me get where I needed to be. In the movie, he portrayed the member of my gang who was the strongest, most dedicated and most faithful ally, literally to the death. And in real life, in the makeup trailer, on the set, Heath was the same — my strongest ally, my best friend, my right arm, my warrior who would never abandon me.
The last day I worked with Heath, his character in the film, Gold Teeth, was dead, and his only duty that day was to spend hours in the makeup chair, getting prosthetics and blood effects installed on his body and face so that he could lie still, shirtless, on the cold ground while my character told him goodbye. He didn’t have to act at all. I’ve played my share of dead bodies in movies, and I know how many times I approached it like a nap.
But Heath went far beyond what he was asked to do that day. He came to me before all of my close-ups and takes and talked to me, in character, about how much he loved me (my character). He brought me to an emotional point in my performance that I might not have gotten to without him. I improvised lines that he inspired to come out of me, and those lines made it into the film. (If you are moved at that moment, please know: I could not have done it without him.) Heath cared so much about the craft, about the film we were making, that he put his all into a scene where he just had to lie down in a pool of blood on a cold floor — he put the extra effort in because he cared about my performance.
It was the last day of an intense, exhausting and very gratifying shoot – one that none of us would ever forget. My emotions were very high, and I went around thanking everybody for all the hard work, hugging, crying and laughing with many people, and especially so with my newfound friend Heath. I thanked him for all he had done for me at the end of that shoot, and we promised we would get together soon.
Six days after we wrapped, Heath Freeman, 41, passed away in his sleep.
When people like Heath leave us so suddenly, it is impossible not to think of our own mortality, and to realize once again that we have such a brief time on this planet and we need to spend it doing things we love with people we love, living the life that God has given us to the fullest, because tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I know for a fact that Heath was so happy about his role in “Terror on the Prairie.” He felt it was one of the best opportunities he had ever been given, just like I did. And he was so optimistic about his future, knowing that he had made a breakthrough in his craft, and in his career.
While I am heartbroken that Heath is not here with us, I am comforted by the advice of an experienced actor friend of mine who offered a perspective I had not considered. He said, and I paraphrase: “Heath passed, in his sleep, after one of the greatest experiences of his life, having completed what he thought was a career-defining role. May we all be so lucky.”
In many ways, Heath was at the pinnacle of the success that he and I, two small-town kids who wanted to be actors, had sought our entire lives. We all have to make that journey into the next life. Of all the ways out of here, maybe Heath’s departure, while so painful for me and others who loved him, wasn’t such a bad way to go.
Heath’s performance in the film was everything he wanted it to be. Throughout the shoot, I watched him devour the scenery, bring everything he had learned about acting to bear, and deliver a terrifying, hilarious, despicable and strangely moving performance. I was so proud of him, and we laughed about how we wanted the audience to love the bad guys, even though we were supposed to be the villains.
My brother, Heath, we did that. I imagined, through the entire premiere screening with the live audience, that you were there with all of us — with Gina and Tyler and Michael and Dallas, and Gabriel-Kane, who, in his first film role, you took under your wing and coached and helped so much. I imagined that you knew how proud we are of you and how thankful we are for all you did for the production. And I imagined that you knew, and felt, what I did — that we had succeeded in moving the audience in ways they did not expect.
And that is why you and I wanted to be actors in the first place.
Heath, my friend, my ally, my brother, my warrior — my only hope and prayer is that I rose to your challenge, and that I made you as proud of me as I am of you.
RIP, my brother, and Godspeed. You will be in my heart forever.
Heath Freeman, 1980 — 2021.