Born in Bavaria in 1840, Solomon Star was sent to live with his uncle in Cincinnati at age 10. But it wasn’t long after his 21st birthday that he picked up and headed west. He wound up in the Dakota Territory, in a Black Hills gold mining camp called Deadwood, and rose from hardware store operator to mayor, serving from 1884 to 1893. “He was very concerned about the welfare of the community,” says Jerry Bryant, research curator at the Adams Museum and House in Deadwood, South Dakota. “Most of us who research him call him Saint Sol.”
Bryant makes the real Sol Star sound every bit as gentlemanly as the character played by John Hawkes on Deadwood. In a town where corpses are fed to the pigs, Sol comes closest to being a true white hat. He is slow with a gun and even slower with an insult, he never gambles, and the only time he drinks is when the doctor removes a bullet from his shoulder. And while Sol does curse in his first scene, it’s less of a habit for him than for most denizens of Deadwood.
When it premiered on HBO last year, Deadwood mostly got attention for its steady flow of expletives—emblematic of an effort by creator David Milch to toss some grit into the myth of the American West. But as the series rides out its second season (the finale airs May 22), Sol’s storyline stands as one of the show’s most remarkable revolutions, though its least remarked upon. Sol may not be the first Jewish character to appear in a Western, but his bold, matter-of-fact portrayal, played neither for laughs nor morality lessons, is pioneering.
The comic setup of placing a Jew in the Wild West has been around since the era of silent movies. In Allan Dwan’s The Yiddisher Cowboy (1911), Ikey Rosenthal, a former peddler, outwits and outshoots a group of ranchers who once forced him to perform a traditional dance—a fantasy of revenge and assimilation. More recently, Mel Brooks played an Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in Blazing Saddles (1974). And The Frisco Kid (1979), Robert Aldrich’s uncomfortable mix of sincerity and slapstick, stars Gene Wilder as a greenhorn rabbi who leaves Poland for a pulpit and a bride in San Francisco—”somewhere near New York,” he’s told. He barely makes it off the boat before bandits hoodwink him, leaving him face-down in the dirt wearing nothing but his underwear.
Outside of comedy, Jewish characters in Westerns are scarce, and not always clearly identified. You could make a case for Jerem Futterman in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the dark-haired trader who betrays John Wayne for money and pays with his life; or bathhouse owner and balladeer Barney Cashman in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). On television, Bonanza and Gunsmoke featured one- or two-episode appearances by European immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism only to face it again, and in a 1960 episode of Have Gun Will Travel, a Russian immigrant named Nathan Shotness hires Paladin to protect his family against a group of thugs. Paladin joins the family at the Sabbath table, where he impresses Nathan with his knowledge of the Mishna and the Zohar.
Sol Star, circa 1916
What separates Sol from his on-screen forebears is his ordinariness—the utter lack of comedy or sentiment in Hawkes’ portrayal. Played with natural conviction and no accent, Sol might make reference to his German background and his father’s favorite maxims, but he never mentions his religion, let alone practices it. Which wouldn’t be so strange if Milch didn’t repeatedly expound on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, read at Wild Bill Hickok’s funeral in episode five. In another stirring scene, Doc Cochran, played with Cuckoo’s Nest gusto by Brad Dourif, prays to God to relieve the cancer-stricken reverend of his suffering, and winds up in a screaming fit, flashing back to his days on the battlefield.
Still, Sol faces more than his share of baldfaced bigotry. Rather than revert to sitcom-style civics, Milch gives the worst gibes to saloon owner Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane, who in the midst of real-estate negotiations tells Sol to “do whatever you people do when you’re not running your mouths off or cheatin’ people out of what they earn by Christian work.” In fact, it’s Swearengen “running his mouth off” in mock-Shakespearean monologues and swindling without regret. And he shows no sign of relenting: After Sol is shot, Al remarks with icy disregard, “Wave a penny under the Jew’s nose. They got living breath in them, brings ’em right around.”
More thorny are the barbs slung by Trixie, a rough-around-the-edges prostitute played by Paula Malcomson, who expresses both her affection and frustration with sly anti-Semitism. Sol and Trixie tryst in the hardware store near the end of the first season (she calls him a “Goddamn Jew fool” with surprising eros), and at the start of the second, develop something like a steady relationship, if not one quite ready for the altar. (The real Star never married, but there are rumors of an affair with actress Ida Livingstone.) But while Sol appears unconcerned about “continuity,” the pairing seems to have sparked some anxiety over his being “quick to succumb to the charms of the nearest available gentile blond.”
Sol Star and Seth Bullock at Redwater River, circa 1897
The real stage of Sol’s assimilation, however, is not his relationship with Trixie, who refuses to look past his ethnicity, but his friendship with business partner and sheriff Seth Bullock. A Protestant from Ontario, the historical Bullock moved with Star to Deadwood in 1876. For all of Milch’s efforts to upend the traditional Western, Seth and Sol fit almost perfectly into a long tradition of Western odd couples. Just as lawman Wyatt Earp helps the hard-drinking Doc Holliday achieve a kind of redemption in My Darling Clementine (1946), on Deadwood Sol is constantly saving Seth from going over the edge. In the first season’s finale, Seth gets into a brawl with his mistress’s father. Sol has to call Seth’s name three times to stop him just short of murder—becoming almost an embodiment of Seth’s conscience. It hardly seems an accident that the tin star eventually pinned to Seth’s shirt has six points.
Consciences may be necessary in real life, but they’re not always fun in fiction—and Sol seemed to disappear for much of the first season. Overshadowed by his less staid companion, it’s been easy to miss the marvels of Hawkes’ soft-spoken performance. But the bonds of friendship pull both ways, and as much as Seth has picked up Sol’s restraint, Sol has absorbed some of Seth’s force. At the beginning of the second season, Sol gets drunk during surgery and calls Seth a cocksucker. “And I like saying ‘cocksucker.’ What the fuck do you think of that?” It echoes the canniest scene in The Frisco Kid, when Harrison Ford teaches Wilder his favorite curse, “Shee-it!” and Gene teaches Harrison “Oy gevalt!” Language—not love—is for Sol is the ultimate barometer of identity and belonging. Sol may still be Seth’s and Deadwood’s conscience, but he’s getting louder.
If the story of the frontier is the fundamental myth of America—the struggle for civilization, justice, and morality in a place outside of any jurisdiction—then Sol and Seth mark a chapter rarely told, and more rarely told well: the story of how Jews and Gentiles lived and worked side by side. How Sol holds himself in relation to the community, whether he can maintain his identity, and whether he should—these are the driving questions of his character.
But Sol can never shake his origins entirely—if only because folks like Trixie and Al won’t let him forget. His ambivalence toward his Jewishness is at once current, and, as Deadwood argues, classic. As for the real Sol Star, his religious habits, like many details about his life, remain murky. By 1880, Deadwood, South Dakota, had a Jewish population of about 200 out of a total of 4,000 residents, and the Black Hills Pioneer ran holiday announcements in 1877, a decade before the town got a Torah. “We don’t even know if he had a bar mitzvah,” says Jerry Bryant of the Adams Museum. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to the Lutheran Church with them on Sunday.”