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Friday, February 9, 2007
Side Project

By Johnna Espinoza
PSN Writer

PRCA cowboy Judd Leffew is thanking his lucky stars that an actor friend of his had to turn down the role of wrangler on CMT's Cowboy U.

Leffew's friend is a "city slicker," something like the reality-show participants on Cowboy U, and he ended up getting hurt horseback riding while preparing for the role. He also lacked the ranching and rodeo knowledge needed for the show. The actor called Leffew and told him he would be unable to do Cowboy U and that Leffew should try out for the part. Leffew, son of ProRodeo Hall of Famer Gary Leffew, sent his photo and resume to CMT producers on a Friday, and by Monday he was taping the Cowboy U pilot in Arizona.

"I fell right into the spot," said Judd, who grew up on a ranch in central California. "I can't thank CMT enough for giving an injured cowboy a job."

Nagging injuries from bull riding slowed down Judd's professional rodeo career, but didn't prevent him from starring in Cowboy U.

Riding bulls as a youngster helped prepare Judd for stardom. He rode his first bull at the age of 13, and started riding professionally at 18. He got his PRCA card in 1995 and is a two-time bull riding champion from the California Circuit.

Judd, 31, still competes in a few California rodeos every year, but he is focusing on television and movie stunt and acting work, along with helping run the family businesses. The Leffew family has a born-to-buck bull breeding program. He also helps his father at the Gary Leffew bull riding schools held at the family ranch in Nipoma, Calif., located about 7 miles northwest of Santa Maria.

Gary, who won the PRCA bull riding world title in 1970, has been a part of numerous Hollywood projects. He taught actor Luke Perry how to ride bulls for the movie 8 Seconds about 1987 World Champion Bull Rider Lane Frost. Gary also helped with the bullfighting stunts for the movie Jackass: Number Two.

Judd, like his dad, has been bitten by the Hollywood bug. Judd said he was immediately comfortable in front of the camera on Cowboy U.

"I know how to play it up. Naturally, I was just kind of born a ham," he said.

Cowboy U: Colorado

Growing up helping with his dad's bull riding schools proved to be the perfect training ground for Judd's role as the wrangler on Cowboy U. Judd worked with all types of people at the bull riding schools, which has helped him relate to the city slickers on CMT's reality show.

"What you see on the show is 90 percent me," Judd said. "Ten percent of it, I just animate it a little bit to add flavor to the show."

The first installment of Cowboy U debuted in August 2003. The show is currently in its sixth season. In some cases, two "seasons" were shot in one year. The show features city dwellers from a variety of backgrounds that are being put through an intense cowboy boot camp in a scenic ranch setting.

Rocco Wachman is the lead instructor. Wachman and Judd put the city slickers through a variety of tasks. Eight people begin the season, and those who struggle with ranch skills are eliminated from the show throughout the season. A rodeo, culminating with bull riding, is held in the finale to help determine a champion. The winner of the show receives $25,000.

The pilot/first season took place in Arizona, while the second season was filmed on the Leffew family ranch in California. The third season in Hawaii featured couples. The program went back to individual participants for season five in Oklahoma. This season's show was shot last summer at the M Lazy C Ranch in Lake George, Colo., located 39 miles west of PRCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs.

Judd said he had a good feeling about Cowboy U from the beginning and enjoyed being able to ad-lib. He has never had a script to memorize or even a set structure to follow. He basically "winged it," he said.

"I really felt the chemistry during the pilot with the producers and the directors — Melanie Moreau and David Wechter had great chemistry — and me and Rocco seemed to hit it off for not ever being around each other before," Judd said. "And I could see adding the bull riding extreme part was really going to change things."

Judd selects the bulls for the rodeo finale, in which both men and women compete equally. He said he has been criticized for having bulls that may appear too easy to ride. However, Judd said he is concerned about the safety of the show's participants who have not ridden a bull before appearing on the show.

The participants of the show provide Judd "the biggest kick," he said. He is most often asked how he deals with the variety of personalities he has to interact with on Cowboy U.

"I love the whole process of watching people test themselves," Judd said.

This season's cast features Bobby, an assistant football coach at John Hopkins University; Candace, a stay-at-home mom; Cosmo, a man between careers; Farrah, a Dallas real estate agent; Katie, a teacher; Malcom, a stay-at-home dad; Rich, a restaurant owner; and Sarah, a young woman still deciding what career path to take.

Judd does know the winner of Cowboy U: Colorado, but he is sworn to secrecy.

"Everyone signs a contract — crew, cast. You sign your life away," said Judd with a chuckle. "It's tempting, of course, you may want to spill the beans at Thanksgiving dinner when everyone is asking you, but it's a lot more fun to watch it build up and build up. And the rodeo is always fun to watch."

Judd doesn't know if there will be a seventh installment of Cowboy U. The producers decide whether or not to continue the show after checking the ratings and completing an evaluation.

New episodes of Cowboy U: Colorado air at 8 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16. Check www.cmt.com for dates of future episodes and rebroadcasts of previous episodes.

Wild Hogs

Judd's lucky break in landing Cowboy U about four years ago put him in the spotlight, which helped him further his acting/stunt career. Judd just finished shooting a bull riding stunt for an Arby's restaurant commercial. He also plays Tim Allen's stunt double in an encounter with a bull in Touchstone Studio's Wild Hogs, to be released March 2. Along with Allen, Wild Hogs stars John Travolta, William T. Macy and Martin Lawrence.

Wild Hogs is about four middle-aged, suburban friends who take a motorcycle road trip and have all kinds of adventures along the way. Judd is bubbling with excitement about the stunt he did in Wild Hogs. In the scene, a Mexican fighting bull hooks Judd, who is doubling as Allen's character. Judd wore a harness and cable in the scene to lift him high into the air once the bull hooks him.

"It looks like the bull just threw Tim Allen 100 yards. It's a great, great stunt," Judd said.

Judd's friend and fellow bull rider Dwayne Hargo Jr. does some stunt double work for Lawrence in the film.

Judd hopes his work in Wild Hogs leads to other movie or television projects. He's also excited about conversations that have mentioned the possibility of scripts being written about rodeo.

"There are a lot of projects in the works," Judd said. "They are on the drawing board, so to speak, scripts are being written. Within, a couple of years, you'll see some great movies. I guarantee it."

And, Judd plans to be part of the action.