AMITE CITY, La. — Ethan Lee is a real-life cowboy who lives in Amite, La. He grew up at rodeos, riding bulls and horses, and worked for years as a rodeo trick rider.
His name was mentioned when the “Free State of Jones” was being filmed in the Covington/Folsom area. The 2016 war drama starring Matthew McConaughey needed some extra help tending to the horses. Lee decided to give it a try but didn’t like the “hurry and wait” environment common in the movie industry.
“I said, ‘If I get through these two weeks, Hollywood doesn’t have to worry about me ever again,’” Lee said.
But he changed his tune when the checks started filling up the mailbox.
“I told my wife, ‘I can’t make what I’m making on set shoeing these horses and doing the things I do. So, maybe, I should get this, you know, take advantage of it while it’s here,’” Lee said.
And the jobs kept coming because Lee was a jack-of-all-trades. He made saddles, prepped horses, and taught the actors how to ride.
About four years ago, he was asked to work on Paramount Network’s cowboy series “Yellowstone.” The network originally told him the work would be for a couple months, but when the network came back and told him to pack his bags for six months, he turned it down.
“All my kids were small, and dad just didn’t want to be gone that much, you know?” Lee said.
His wife, Dr. Brennan Fitzgerald-Lee is an equine veterinarian. On top of the work of raising kids, the couple also own about 10 horses and 25 cows. So there is a lot of work to be done when he’s gone.
“I even told my wife I kind of regret turning that down. Sounded like such a good deal and something that may be fun, something that may go seasons,” Lee said. “So, you’re thinking I might have turned something down that could be great, potentially.”
So Lee and his wife decided that if Yellowstone called him back, he would give it a try. And the show called back. What was supposed to be two weeks has now turned into four seasons.
Most of the actors on Yellowstone had no riding experience, so Lee runs a cowboy boot camp to get them ready every season. After that, he is on call to teach riding lessons and whatever the actors need to feel comfortable in character.
One night, the show was shooting a night scene with a lot of horses and cattle with helicopters swooping in. Ian Bohen, who plays Ryan on the show wasn’t comfortable riding with all of the distractions. And then it was Ethan’s moment to expand his resume.
“Hey, I need you to get in wardrobe and stunt double for this guy, Ian Bohen, he’s not comfortable,” Lee said he was told. “I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’”
Lee says the most memorable stunt he has performed so far was a bar fight in season two.
“They pick me up and they throw me over the bar, and I hit the back wall. Coming down, my foot hit one of the beer taps, and so I’m down on the floor and this guy jumps over and is beating the heck out of me, and just beer is running all in my face. And it was just super cool because hey that could have actually happened,” Lee said.
Yellowstone writer Taylor Sheridan started writing Lee into scenes as “Ethan, a Yellowstone ranch hand” and by the end of season two he was made part of the cast.
“For me, it was a huge deal and always will be,” Lee said.
During another scene, there was a catfight and Lee got caught in the moment.
“It was just something that kind of bubbled out. I jumped up and said, ‘I got 20 on Texas,’ hoping that no one heard me really,” Lee said. He didn’t want to mess with the integrity of the script, but the writers noticed his ad-lib in post-editing and loved it. He didn’t have a microphone on during filming, and they needed him to drive to New Orleans to do a voice-over so viewers could hear him.
“I go to the studio and said this line about 100 times until they liked it,” Lee said.
Lee said no one imagined Yellowstone would become one of the most popular shows on TV. We had to ask him about the characters - like “Is Kelly Reilly anything like her abrasive role of Beth Dutton?”
“Kelly is the sweetest lady - one of the sweetest ladies that you’ll ever meet, which just shows her acting ability and her skill level there is just off the chart,” Lee said. “She owns her character.”
“RIP is a lot like that in person,” Lee added. He is 9-0 ready for anything, likes to ride if he’s on his horse. He wants to go fast. You know, he wants to run.”
“The first time he asked me to go fly fishing with him, I was kind of thinking, ‘What am I going to talk to Kevin Costner about?” Lee said. “I was a little uncomfortable, I’ll be honest. So when I was getting ready for this trip, I was like, man… almost to the point of not wanting to go anymore. But then I just said to myself, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time like I do” and I thought to myself the one thing I am not going to talk about is movie work.”
Lee continues to work on Yellowstone and is now also working on the set of 1883. You can even see a couple of the family horses on the shows.
The Lees certainly don’t “look a gift horse in the mouth.” They’re thankful for the Hollywood opportunities and are enjoying the process and his ever-expanding role. Their kids are especially thankful.
“They’re still at the age where dad’s cool,” Lee said. “I know that will change when they’re teenagers. They like it, get to come to Montana, hang out on the ranch, watch the cameras roll and the show be made. So, it’s a big deal for them,” Lee said.
Lee found fame when he wasn’t even looking for it, be he still prefers Amite, the one-horse town where he hangs his hat.
“I love it. I love coming home,” Lee said.