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Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday on Television and in the Movies

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I will admit this isn’t the perfect time for movies, what with the MLB playoffs. Forget football. Okay, I’m a baseball person. This column has absolutely nothing to do with baseball except for the fact that Wyatt Earp was a big baseball fan and this is another column about the 125th Anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. 

There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to movies about Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. I read somewhere that there are more movies either about Wyatt Earp or featuring Wyatt Earp as a character or mentioning Wyatt Earp than any other human who has ever lived. I don’t know if this is true. Movie historian Michael Blake is promising a history of Wyatt Earp movies this fall. Maybe he knows. These are just a few of the many movies and television shows where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday make an appearance.

The Early  Films

Law and Order (1932), starring Walter Huston as a Wyatt Earp character, was the first out of the can, beating Frontier Marshal by several years.

In 1939, Randolph Scott had the official role of Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake. This is the film role Wyatt Earp himself wanted Joel McCrea to play. That same year Errol Flynn takes a stab at playing a Wyatt Earp character in Dodge City (1939).

Then came Richard Dix in 1942’s Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die.

John Ford’s masterful classic, My Darling Clementine, came out in 1946. Henry Fonda played the laconic Wyatt Earp. Victor Mature played Doc. The film is Ford’s tribute to his friend and poker buddy, Wyatt Earp. In my humble opinion, Walter Brennan steals the film. 

Masterson of Kansas (1954) is a movie about Bat Masterson, who's played by Gene Barry. The character of Wyatt Earp is featured in a smaller roll.  In 1958 the role won Barry a television series about Masterson.

Of all the actors who have played Wyatt Earp, Hugh O’Brian is probably most identified with the character because of the television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.  He was probably closest to Earp’s true size, and depth of voice. The big problem is the lack of mustache. You can’t be Wyatt Earp without a mustache. From what I can remember his lack thereof had something to do with either a wife or girlfriend not liking it. My personal opinion is it was more the time frame. An all-American hero during the Eisenhower years would never wear a Stalin-looking mustache.  This was the first “adult” content television western when it premiered in 1955. Until it ended its run in 1962 with the Gunfight at the OK Corral as the final episode, it was constantly listed as one of the top rated shows on television. 

Also in 1955, Joel McCrea’s version of Wyatt was released. McCrea was the only man to play Wyatt Earp who actually knew Wyatt. He did extensive research for his 1955 movie and later short-lived television series, Wichita. McCrea was Earp’s personal choice to portray him in a movie if one was ever to be made of his life. In 1939, Randolph Scott had the “official” role of Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake. This is the film role Wyatt Earp himself wanted Joel McCrea to play.  

Until recently I have not appreciated the elegance of Burt Lancaster. His classic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) had a title song done by Frankie Lane. Kirk Douglas played an interesting Doc Holliday. The sequel, The Hour of the Gun came out a decade later.  My favorite Wyatt Earp, James Garner had the title role in this one. Jason Robards played a way too old Doc Holliday. 

Alias Jesse James (1959) is a comedy starring Bob Hope. Earp also appears in a Three Stooges film. I’m thinking he also tangles with the Marx Brothers, but I could be wrong. Also that same year, Henry Fonda’s character in Warlock was based on Earp.

The 1960s Through the 1970s

I’ve always thought George Peppard’s character in the masterful epic, How the West Was Won (1963) was based on Wyatt Earp. I was a little kid when I saw it in Cinerama. If you live near one of the rare remaining Cinerama theaters, this is a movie you should not miss. The cast alone is one of the greatest ever assembled, a who’s who of Hollywood in the early 1960s. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Preston, Raymond Massey, Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Thelma Ritter, Harry Morgan, Caroll Baker, narrated by Spencer Tracy. The only possible way to watch it on television is to get a wide screen version and deal with the extreme letterbox. This is the film that infected a young Kevin Costner and moi! If anything can come close to 'the great American novel on film', this is it.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964) is a John Ford western with Wyatt Earp portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. In the movie there is this strange segue to Dodge City, where an actual event, though much fictionalized, is depicted. Stewart is wonderful as Wyatt Earp. Interestingly, knowing John Ford’s friendship with Earp, perhaps more is true in this sequence than we might think. I do think that’s why the sequence is in the film.

To those of us who are movie freaks, buff being an insufficient word, the mid to late 1960s through the mid-1970s until the moment when those simple little words "a long time ago in a galaxy far away" filled the screen, movies were terrible. The only redeeming moments were the James Bond films and there were a few charming little comedies and the usual Godfather mix, but for my money, they weren’t much fun. 

In 1967 the crew of the Starship Enterprise beamed onto an alien planet where they were forced to face the Earps in Hour of the Gun, thereby providing every Trekkie and Earpie with nirvana and Ensign Chekov as the doomed Billy Clanton. Trivia time: What Earp did Dr. McCoy play in an earlier film?  

I’ll just state up front my very favorite movie version of Wyatt Earp is Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and has nothing to do with Wyatt Earp. James Garner is my favorite Wyatt Earp. (Alright already, I admit it, I’m a James Garner fan! I am especially a James Garner fan when he’s in a horse opera!). 

Doc, featuring Harris Yulin as Wyatt, came out in 1971. It is by far the worst movie ever made about Wyatt Earp and the entire subject. It is an obscenity. Nothing less. Stacy Keach is Doc. This film is the perfect example of everything wrong with movies during that miserable period of filmmaking. My favorite version of Wyatt Earp is James Garner in Sunset, from 1988. In the film, an aging Wyatt Earp joins Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) in Hollywood on the eve of the first Oscar event in 1929. Unfortunately, the real Wyatt Earp died in January 1929. But – this is the best portrayal of Wyatt Earp.

Dueling Wyatt Earps

The next Earp movie, Tombstone (1993) starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, was a masterpiece. I don’t like the mustache Russell wears in the film. It was from the famous 1884 photo of Wyatt. Let’s face it, Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday stole the show. The movie had as many good memorable one-liners as any decent Star Trek episode would.

The following year my favorite of the Earp movies, Wyatt Earp, featured a Kevin Costner, who, in a few scenes, looked much like the actual Wyatt Earp. Most Earp-like is the scene where Wyatt is breaking Bat and Ed Masterson in as cops in Dodge City. There is a spot where they are on the sidewalk that is so Wyatt-like it is a bit spooky. Dennis Quaid is definitely my favorite Doc Holliday. My primary complaint about the Costner version is the fact that he based too much of it on Frank Waters’ The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, which is highly critical of Wyatt and extremely inaccurate. I’ve heard there are about three more hours that need to be edited into a long version. 

The Russell and Costner versions both feature the strong ties within the Earp family, though the Costner film goes more deeply into it the family story. Let’s face it, Tombstone is the most exciting of the two and probably the better movie.   

In 1994, cashing in on the new Wyatt Earp craze, Hugh O'Brian starred in Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, a movie combining colorized footage of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp with new scenes filmed in Tombstone. The moment I set foot in Tombstone next week I’m going to be pelted with popcorn for saying this, but this turkey has the dubious honor of joining the Star Wars Christmas Special as one of the worst of the worst television has ever inflicted on an innocent audience! 

And in a trivia question, in 1999 brother Randy Quaid played Doc in a wonderful TV movie, Purgatory.  If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. All I will say, as not to destroy the wonderful punch line of the movie, is it is a wild west version of Dante’s Purgatory

And so on.

Best punch line about Wyatt Earp — in Shanghi Noon, Roy O’Bannon, played by Owen Wilson, comments something to the effect that he can’t stand his real name. Chan’s character naturally asks what is the real name, Wilson replies, “Wyatt Earp!” 

The Best For Last

Perhaps the best real life punch line is the life and family of John Henry Holliday. His life, the trials and tribulations and ill-fated love affair with his beloved cousin Mattie, are the fodder for another classic film, that some say, arguably, is one of the greatest movies ever made. Mattie was kind, gentle, and loving. When she realized there was no hope for a marriage between her and Doc, she became a nun. She lived in Atlanta. As a nun, she became Sister Mary Melanie. Her cousin and very dear friend wanted the world to know what a wonderful person Sister Mary Melanie was. So, when she wrote a novel based on the Holliday family, she put her beloved cousin in as a character. She also based a character on Doc Holliday. Unfortunately, the novelist only published one book. Her name was Margaret Mitchell. 

And that’s the greatest punch line of the whole story: Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • Donnie Marler

    “Don’t move!”
    “Nonsense, by all means, move.”
    One of the best movie lines ever!!!

  • http://reverberatingdream.blogspot.com The Marquise

    I love this article, although I admit I was raised with my father singing Frankie Laine’s version of “OK Corral” most of my childhood so I have prejudice towards the Lancaster/Douglas version. Actually, the cast of that film is very good too…even the little bit featuring Dennis Hopper.

    But Tombstone does it for me…enough action to cover all groups, although some things were so grossly fictionalized they border on being too humourous. Loved the whole damn lot of them, good and bad guys alike. Even the Robert Mitchum voiceover. And, yes, Val Kilmer walked away with this hands down. The whole “Huckleberry” chat through two scenes with Johnny Ringo is classic. I’ve always wondered just how much improv they did on that film.

    My fave lines from Tombstone (and Lord knows there are many) is one my father also loved (and Tombstone was the last movie he saw before he died)…as close as I can remember LOL

    (when Doc is dying and Earp says all he wanted in life, but believes he has lost):
    Earp: All I wanted was a simple life, Doc.
    Doc: There is no simple life, Wyatt. There’s just life. You need to go out there and live it. (and then Doc talks about loving his first cousin at age 15…)

    BTW: one of the earliest films Tom Mix ever auditioned/starred in as a horse stuntman featured some characteristics of Earp. And yes, after Masterson hung up his guns, he moved to California (about the time of Frank James, Jesse’s brother) and became a successful sports writer. So Bat was a writer and Frank a movie theatre usher. Talk about career change…

  • http://www.minewastaller.com/ Ian Woolstencroft

    Great article.

    Like you, my favourite Wyatt is James Garner. Hour of the Gun shows he was just as good in a serious role as he was in lighter parts, something he rarely gets credit for.

    Robards may have been too old to play Doc but he was only a few years older than Kirk Douglas was when he played the part, and at least he looked ill, unlike Douglas and Victor Mature.

    As did my favourite Doc, Dennis Quaid. I’d love to see the full version of Wyatt Earp. It was originaly planned as a six-hour mini-series.

  • Amanda

    Doc Holliday on Tombstone was by far the greatest. He was very witty, which gave the film a couple laughs. Not only to mention, even sick and dying, Doc was extremely attractive=)
    Oh how i love that movie! His mustache and the sophisicated way he talked reminded me of a southern gentlemen or pimp.Very cool !

  • John Edward Holliday/Savannah Ga.

    My great great uncle was by all accounts a very good man when it came to his friends which my grandmother told me that he had few in those days. He would have liked Vale Kilmers portrayal of him because like the real Doc he is an honerable and brave man. I believe if he was ever asked what was the most important action to take in live it would have been to live life like there is no tomorrow and most of all stand by your friends like he did Wyatt. I have gleened as much knowledge from my Grandmother and other older relitives about this unusual man and to my best memory and thoughts he was truely one of our countries greatest unsung heros along with the Earp brothers. Some folks will disagree I am sure of that but he will always be in my mind an Western American hero. He was a Peach and was most definatly a man of his times.

  • http://www.wyattearpbooks.com/ SJ Reidhead

    John Holiday, please email me.

    http://www.wyattearpbooks.com

  • http://www.deadlyserious.com/JimDoherty JIM DOHERTY

    Though Gene Barry did, as you noted, star in the TV series BAT MASTERSON, he did not play the character in the film MASTERSON OF KANSAS. George Montgomery filled the role in that movie.

  • EW Holliday

    My great great Uncle was Doc Holliday as well. My Family never spoke kindly of him and hid the fact of our relation. Today we find the Honor and glory in how he lived, but common people did not back then. It is amazing how so many people are Doc Hollidays direct relatives. Our Family has never all gotten together. Since there are only a few left, incredible for such a small line following from him, but then again I guess we’re all related through Adam and Eve. Kinda like that relation to Kevin Bacon through Movies I guess. This is not meant as any attack I am just standing up for my namesake. ~Peace