Morning slips over an oak-dotted grassland and settles on a clearing where a bawling stream of cattle churns through a corral gate. From the back of his stocky paint stud, Alexander “A.J.” Dunn throws the first loop and his mother, Nina, runs the branding iron. So begins another round in the yearly ritual of livelihood at the Dunn Cattle Company in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills.
By early afternoon, more than a hundred head have been vaccinated, cut, and branded, thanks to help from Dunn daughters Emily and Monica, and friends who have come from as far away as the Hollywood Hills. Several are actors or extras or stuntmen who met young Dunn on sets like Deadwood, Las Vegas, and Numb3rs. Others had seen his chiseled 6-foot, 4-inch physique plastered across ads for popular clothing lines such as Abercrombie & Fitch.
To hear Dunn tell it, that’s how it all started.
“I went in the [retail chain] store to talk to a buddy and the manager asked if I would like to work,” Dunn says. “He made me a greeter.”
For a high school senior, it was a dream come true. With his muscular good looks and winsome cowboy smile, Dunn was soon snatched up for denim ads, which led to bit parts and stuntman action on several television series. It wasn’t long before he met stunt coordinator Walter Scott.
Scott hired him as an extra on the television series Las Vegas, where Dunn stepped out of character to play a bad guy. The story line gave him the enviable task of kidnapping actress Molly Sims— and stuffing her in a coffin.
“He’s pretty strong and his size helps,” Scott says. “He can use all this in the movie business.”
By the time he signed on with Scott, Dunn had already worked for movie wrangler Todd Forsberg on the Deadwood series, where Dunn’s horseback skills landed him a job as a Pinkerton man in the rough-and-rowdy Black Hills outlaw camp. Success led to a jump off the stagecoach, a speaking line at the end of the show’s last season, his own agent, and a Screen Actor’s Guild card.
Dunn’s list of television and movie credits continues to grow, but Hollywood doesn’t turn this cowboy’s head. At 25 he still has his sights set on ranch land—as much of it as he can get. “I love acting and doing stunts with Walter,” Dunn says, and if it takes a little film work to help pay for a life-long dream, he’s willing.
Dunn says he’s at his best riding the family ranch in the spring-green foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He can’t remember not riding, and even as a toddler he doubled up in the saddle with one of his parents. Today he splits his time between Hollywood and the family’s spread near Fountain Springs, where he’s building up his own herd, including a pen of Black Angus bucking bulls. They’re a tough group to work, he says, and it takes a tough horse to get the job done, but he’s got one.
“He can hold ’em,” Dunn says of Studly, the stout little paint horse he raised from a broncy colt. “He’s what I rope my bulls on.” As daylight fades into an early evening, people move closer to the fire or load their horses and head home, a hard day’s work behind them. But they’ll all be back next year, happy to continue the series with another installment of living out the real life of a model cowboy.