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Arts & Entertainment

Accidental Texan Became Personal for Real Texan Thomas Haden Church

The DIFF award-winner, which opens this weekend, brought back memories for the former Dallas resident and UNT student.
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Thomas Haden Church brought some life experiences to his oilman role in the comedy Accidental Texan. Roadside Attractions

Thomas Haden Church has lived in Texas for 51 of his 63 years, so playing a struggling yet charming oilman who schemes to keep his business afloat hit particularly close to home.

In fact, Abilene screenwriter Julie Denny always felt Church’s authenticity would make a perfect fit for the lead in the crowd-pleasing comedy Accidental Texan, her longtime passion project. She just had to wait for him to get old enough to play the role.

“Merle is largely based upon men I grew up around in South Texas who were ranchers and oilmen; men who were friends with my dad,” Church said. “He’s really a 50-year throwback, from his hat and his boots to his khaki shirt and khaki pants. That was the uniform of the Texas rancher when I was growing up in South Texas.”

In fact, Church wore his own hat for much of the film, which had its world premiere at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival, where it won an audience award, and will open in theaters this weekend.

It’s a story of scrappy underdogs battling corporate greed in a small town near Abilene, where a fledgling Hollywood actor (Rudy Pankow) becomes stranded on a cross-country drive after being fired during a shoot. Seeking help from a waitress (Carrie-Anne Moss) at a small-town diner, he reluctantly agrees to help an eccentric driller (Church) maneuver into oil lease and stave off bankruptcy.

“It is about the oil industry in West Texas, but you could supplant that for so many other things that are so close to my heart. Having a livelihood that endangered for a multitude of variables—that was something that I could really identify with in Merle.”

The role prompted Church to recall dropping out of high school during the late 1970s to work for several months in the oil fields in South Texas and Louisiana.

“It was a really impactful time in my youth,” he said. “I quickly learned I did not want to have a life working on an oil rig.”

His parents convinced him to return to high school in Harlingen. He later relocated to Dallas, attended the University of North Texas in Denton, and then left for Hollywood. These days, Church spends most of his time on his ranch outside of Kerrville, which he bought in 1999. His brother still lives in Oak Cliff.

However, opportunities to film near home have been rare throughout Church’s career. Accidental Texan was shot primarily in Bartlett, about 50 miles northeast of Austin, in late 2021. The film also features Allen’s Brad Leland (Friday Night Lights) and Fort Worth’s Julio Cesar Cedillo (A Million Miles Away) in supporting roles.

Church was so drawn to Denny’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Abilene author Cole Thompson, that he also signed on as a co-producer.

“When I read it, it was like the lost chapters of my life and being around men like Merle,” Church said. “It’s the pure Texan-ism of it that really hooked me. Whether you’re a Texan or not, I think it’s very relatable.”

Author

Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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