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Not just 'Yellowstone': Billings sites, residents shine on-screen too

moss mansion room ke.jpg
Kay Erickson
Yellowstone Public Radio
This room in the Moss Mansion in Billings doubled as the Oval Office in the miniseries "Son of Morning Star."

Western Montana has been the focus of television and movie production in recent years—the Bitterroot Valley as the setting for Yellowstone, Butte for 1923 and the Yellowstone Film Ranch in Park County as the setting for the in-production/forthcoming movie Rust.

But farther east, Billings and its residents have also had opportunities in front of the camera lens over the years.

Former Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Capt. Dennis McCave appeared in the opening scene of the 2013 film Nebraska, which spent just over a month shooting in Billings in 2012. Actor Bruce Dern plays an elderly Billings man who believes he needs to go to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar prize. He’s found walking along the overpass on South 27th Street by McCave who says he was told to play it just like he would on patrol.

"When you walk up behind somebody, you don’t just touch them or, you know, scare them," McCave said. "I’d get out of the car, the first couple of walk throughs, get out of the car,  I’d say, ‘Hey buddy, hey pal. Where ya’ going. You OK?”

A bit of serendipity has McCave in another movie, director Ron Howard’s Far and Away, that spent some five months shooting in Billings in 1991.

Bill McCave
Kay Erickson
Yellowstone Public Radio
Former Yellowstone County Sheriff's Capt. Bill McCave has appeared in two movies filmed in Billings.

McCave was an extra in the dancing girls and fight scene alongside actors Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. A scene that was only a few minutes on the screen took eight days to shoot at the Billings Depot.

Another iconic Billings structure that’s appeared on-screen is the Moss Mansion, featured in the TV mini-series Return to Lonesome Dove and Son of Morning Star, the latter when it doubled as the White House.

The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, so crews have to take great care, says executive director Aly Turner.

“They would put cardboard protectors all the way around the walls a lot of the times," she said. "And then we would take out original items out or we would cover them in plastic so they could touch them and it wouldn’t be a noticeable."

Billings hosted a 1976 movie premiere of The Missouri Breaks, starring Marlin Brando and Jack Nicholson and shot in Billings, Red Lodge and — yes — the Missouri Breaks.

Billings’ star is not just in the past: A report from the Montana Film Office on the economic impact of Montana film production found from 2020 to 2022, some $7.6 million in production funds were spent in Yellowstone County. That’s sixth place in total production expenditures among the state’s counties, and up from the $2.5 million dollars spent in 2019. No. 1 for expenditures is Ravalli County at nearly $71 million dollars. That’s money spent locally on things like catering, hotels, hardware stores and transportation.

And Billings and Yellowstone County are continuing to attract production interest. Moss Mansion’s Aly Turner said they were approached recently about a television show but did not hear back.

The independent movie We Burn Like This was shot here several years ago and is still being shown at film festivals around the world and winning awards.

Recent Billings productions include Supercell, a movie on storm chasers to be released later this spring, and Blood for Dust, an indie action-thriller starring Kit Harington and Josh Lucas that wrapped up shooting a couple of months ago at locations including the Billings Gazette and a home in central Billings.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.