Exclusive Q&A—Elkhorn Executive Producer

A sit down with Elkhorn executive producer Gary Tarpinian
By Jay Coffin

Gary Tarpinian has always had a fascination with Theodore Roosevelt, and he’s thrilled that he’s finally found a way to tell the story about the most impactful time in Roosevelt’s young life. Tarpinian is president, chief executive officer and co-founder of MorningStar Entertainment, an Emmy Award-winning production company that produced Elkhorn for INSP. MorningStar has produced hundreds of hours of content for networks like Discovery, National Geographic, History, PBS, A&E, Lifetime, Travel and ESPN, among others.

In this interview with Tarpinian, he explains his love of American history, his interest in Roosevelt and what he would ask him if he would have ever had a chance to sit down with the man who became the 26th president of the United States.


Why Theodore Roosevelt? And why is now the perfect time?

I am a student of history, I love history. I was going to teach history until I realized that it’s actually more fun making shows about history than teaching it. I love these great stories, and I want to make sure people know them. My belief is that Theodore Roosevelt, who was our youngest elected president at 42 years old, would not have become president if he hadn’t quit the New York State Legislature, (ventured) west and become a cowboy for a couple years.

That experience made him a man. He was a frail sickly guy … a prince who went to Harvard—he was the golden boy. After his unthinkable personal tragedy—where both his mother and wife die within hours of each other on Valentine’s Day 1884—T.R. goes west and becomes a man. He learned how to get along with regular people, who were not from the upper class that he grew up with. These “commoners” or cowboys in the territory didn’t care if he was a Roosevelt or how rich his family was. All they cared about was if he could ride, rope and shoot and if they could depend on him in a difficult situation. When T.R. figured out how to learn the skills of a cowboy he gained everyone’s respect and grew into the man who 18 years later would become president of the United States.

Many historians also believe T.R.’s time in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory was the most pivotal period in this young man’s life. From a storytelling standpoint, this period of T.R.’s life is like a classic three act play. In Act 1, you meet a young guy who has everything going for him. In Act 2, you give him a huge problem (mother and wife die on the same day), and in Act 3 you wait to see how our hero will handle the problem he’s been given. Will it ruin him or will he overcome it, and in the process of doing that, reach his full potential? That’s the story we wanted to tell over a 10-part series arc. We were surprised that this pivotal 18-month period of Roosevelt’s life had never been told in a scripted project—until now.


What’s so appealing about the character of Roosevelt specifically?

He is the ultimate fish out of water. He lives on Madison Avenue, near Central Park. His house at one point was almost a whole city block! He grew up with servants and was as close to American royalty as you could be. One year his father decided it would be good for the children’s education to go to Europe. So, he stopped working for an entire year—and took the whole family on a European vacation staying in the best hotels, going every place you could go from Rome to Amsterdam to Berlin. But after T.R.’s family tragedy he basically runs away from his family and heads to the Dakota Territory, which was really the last vestiges of the Wild West in 19th century America. T.R. ostensibly went west because he wanted to get into the cattle business, but it was really to escape from his problems. Plus, T.R. had this romantic view of the west like so many young boys had. He believed that this would be the last opportunity to see the Old West before it was gone.


If you could sit down and talk to Roosevelt, what would you insist on talking to him about?

It would be a dream to sit down with a man like that and talk to him.

I would ask the man himself, how did he think the west transformed him and made him into the man who would one day be president? I don’t know what he would say, but I do know that he thought the experience in the west transformed him. He learned how to relate to average people and never looked down on anyone. He respected everyone. Around two years after he became president, T.R. took a train out to the Badlands, and stopped at Medora, Little Missouri and Dickinson. In every town, they had a huge banquet for him and reminisced about T.R.’s time in the Badlands. The old timers who knew T.R. when he first went west said ‘he walked up to every one of us, and though it had been 20 years, he recognized us, knew our name, and would talk about horses and dogs from 20 years ago that we hardly remembered.’

I think what Roosevelt might also say if he was alive today (and [assuming] he’s been watching the current political news in our country), is that he was shaped by the very best of the east and the west. He was shaped by New York City and the Badlands. Today, we might say T.R. embodied the best from both ‘blue states’ and the ‘red states’ and that this combination helped produce one of the greatest Americans of all time. If only we had that spirit today of looking for the best that each region has to offer instead of only focusing on our differences.

Theodore Roosevelt was a great president in part because he reflected the best virtues of east and west, of cities and the prairie of common cowboys and Harvard professors. It seems quite ironic that the first president born in New York City is widely regarded today as the country’s only ‘Cowboy President.’


Are you still surprised that he ultimately became president? Or did his overall determination almost guarantee it would happen?

T.R. was highly determined and motivated to achieve his entire life. He wanted to be great in everything he did. I would’ve been surprised before he went west that he would ultimately become president, but after he achieved what he did in the west and came back east, it was as if he was this new, exciting person. Republican leaders believed he could be mayor of New York City or even governor. T.R. represented a new generation of Americans and he embodied their belief that the 20th century would be the ‘American Century.’

T.R. was tapped to be the assistant secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley in 1896. When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, (which we now know was due to an undetected coal fire burning near the ship’s black powder magazine—and was not the result of Spanish sabotage), it sparked the Spanish-American War. T.R., who was always looking for his next great adventure, fought to get into the fight. Given the opportunity to raise a combat regiment completely composed of cowboys, T.R. resigned from the Navy department and created the Rough Riders. Their success in defeating the Spanish at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and winning the war, made Roosevelt one of the most admired men in the country. Republican leaders believed T.R. would give McKinley’s reelection bid a shot in the arm, so T.R. was tapped to be McKinley’s running mate as vice president for the election of 1900. T.R. was just 42 years old.

If T.R. hadn’t gone west, he would have never developed the skills to lead a regiment of cowboys in battle, and he would have never been selected to be President McKinley’s running mate. With the assassination and tragic death of President McKinley in September 1901, T.R. became the youngest president in history. It seems remarkable that just 17 years after T.R. believed his whole life had irreparably fallen apart after the deaths of his beloved wife and his mother, he was president of the United States. And what a president he was. T.R.’s energy and vision helped transform the United States into the greatest nation in the world.