The original Lonesome Dove story had been written as a movie script for a 1970s film to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich and star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. Wayne turned down the part on John Ford's advice and Stewart backed out as a result, so the movie was abandoned. McMurtry later turned the script into a full-length novel. The novel was then developed as a television miniseries with Tommy Lee Jones in the Wayne role, Robert Duvall in the Stewart part, and Robert Urich filling in for Fonda. James Garner had been offered the role of Augustus McCrae in the original miniseries but had to turn it down for health reasons. Garner later played Woodrow Call in the sequel, "The Streets of Laredo".
The basic story is a slightly fictionalized account of Charles Goodnight's and Oliver Loving's cattle drive. In particular, Loving (Gus) was attacked by Indians, and died several weeks later of blood poisoning with Goodnight (Call) at his side. Goodnight honored Loving's dying request to be taken back to Texas for burial.