Ryan Reaves talks about TV show based on a his great-great-great-grandfather

David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire

It was around two years ago when Toronto Maple Leafs winger Ryan Reaves said he received a phone call from someone about the idea of creating a TV show about his great-great-great-grandfather Bass Reeves, who was one of the first Black deputy U.S. Marshals.

Now it has become a reality. Paramount+ has aired the first three of the eight-episode series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" starring David Oyelowo in the title role. The show, whose executive producer is "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan, also stars Dennis Quaid.

"It's pretty cool. Obviously, this guy was one of a kind in his field at a time when Black people weren't necessarily respected in that field or in the community at all," Reaves said. "For him to be in that position and have the career that he did. He was famous for [pursuing] a lot of people. ... He got into multiple shootouts by himself."

(Reaves' name is spelled differently because his grandfather replaced one of the E's with an A.)

Reaves first learned about his connection to Reeves more than two years ago after his father, Willard, researched their family history. Bass Reeves was born into slavery and eventually escaped north into territory where Indigenous tribes such as the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole resided, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Reeves' knowledge of the territory allowed him to serve as a guide for the Marshals whenever they had to enter that territory in an attempt to find fugitives. He was eventually named a deputy U.S. Marshal, a role he held for more than 30 years.

A story from the Chickasaw Enterprise in 1901 claimed Reeves arrested more than 3,000 people, while the Muskogee Times Democrat also reported that Reeves often single-handedly arrested criminals who had been charged with everything ranging from bootlegging to murder.

Author Art Burton wrote in his book "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves" that Reeves never sustained a single gunshot wound throughout his career. Burton also presented the hypothesis that Reeves may have been the inspiration for the fictional character the Lone Ranger.

Reaves, who is known for being one of the NHL's most physical players over his 800-plus-game career, said learning about his connection to his great-great-great-grandfather led to him going down what he described as "a rabbit hole" when it came to Reeves and Black history as a whole.

"It's cool learning about stuff like that, people like that in history -- people who have been through some pretty serious trials and tribulations," Reaves said. "Especially people who've been through it when the odds were stacked against them -- being a Black man in a white man's world back then. It's fascinating stuff and I'm sure once this show comes out, I know I am going to watch it and I am going to be a little more intrigued with it and do a little more research."

While the show is a western that is expected to have some fictionalized elements, just the fact that it's being released is a point of pride for Reaves because of what it means within the context of Black history.

"It's just a pretty cool story to learn that this is a distant relative," Reaves said. "Especially with the problems and the challenges that he had being a Black man."

In 2022, Quinnipiac University revealed its findings from a national poll that showed only 27% of Americans believed what they learned in school "reflected a full and accurate account of the role African Americans played in the United States."

An article from the National Council for the Social Studies in 2017 cited a survey of more than 500 U.S. elementary, middle and high school social studies teachers, which revealed less than 10% of total class time in those classrooms is devoted to Black history.

Education Weekly reported that since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or have taken other additional measures that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism or sexism.

In addition, there are the personal challenges many Black people have faced trying to learn about their family history because many slaves were not allowed to read, write, attend school or legally marry, among other restrictions.

Even Oyelowo, who is an executive producer on the show, told Vanity Fair in August that he "had no idea who [Reeves] was" and that a cursory Google search was "the beginning of the obsession with trying to get [the show] made."

Reaves said he feels a show like "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" could not only help educate people, but could also provide more insight into the importance of preserving Black history.

"Not everybody is opening up a book and thinking about Black history," Reaves said. "A lot of people like to go and watch TV. They like to see it and they like to see it dramatized. Obviously, because it's a show on TV, there are going to be some things that aren't necessarily fiction but the facts have been extended a little bit. Some scenes are obviously dramatized. You don't have the exact script of what people are saying back then. But it opens up your eyes to what was going on back then. I think that's the way culture is. It's no longer just looking at books and reading encyclopedias. It is getting everything visually now."

Although nobody with the show has recently reached out to Reaves, he said that he'd be open to having a cameo role because of the personal connection and what it means to him and his family.

"I've done a little acting in my day, so why not?" Reaves said with a laugh, in reference to a series of commercials in which he was the spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority from his time with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Reaves is also excited because he's a big fan of Sheridan and the work he did with making "Yellowstone" among the most popular shows on TV. Reaves said that he and his wife, Alanna, typically don't like watching shows when they first come out and would rather wait until the season is over so they can binge watch them.

That's what they did with "Yellowstone," but Reaves said their viewing habits will be different now that there is a story that is a bit more personal for them.

"With a producer like that who has made some pretty big hits -- because 'Yellowstone' I know is very popular and it was one of the most talked about shows when it came out," Reaves said. "To have him doing a show about somebody in your family, you know it's going to be a hit and you know people are going to tune in. It's going to be a good show, but it's also going to tell a story that's about one of my relatives."