OF ALL THE LAWMEN OF the Old West, the one who garnered the most fame in the 20th century was Wyatt Earp. Bill Hickok was certainly more famous in his own lifetime, but Wyatt’s star rose along with the success of the film industry—due in part to Wyatt’s long life and his choice of the city in which he retired.
By the time Earp died in 1929 at the age of 81 in Los Angeles, movies were big business and getting bigger all the time. He was friends with early western stars like Tom Mix and director John Ford, who’s 1946 classic, My Darling Clementine was considered the best of the Earp movies until the 1990s (provided you aren’t looking for any degree of historical accuracy). Since 1932 there have been at least 10 movies filmed where Wyatt Earp was the central character and about 20 others where Earp is at least tangential to the story.
The string of Earp movies culminated in the early 1990s with Kurt Russell playing Wyatt in Tombstone and Kevin Costner playing the lawman in Wyatt Earp. Costner threw everything into his film but the kitchen sink. I liked it, but I remember remarking to a friend, “You know there’s a great two-hour movie inside Costner’s Wyatt Earp, he just needs some good editing to get out.” My friend replied, “Mike, I agree with you—that movie is named Tombstone.”
He’s probably right. Tombstone had a huge effect on the Cowboy Action Shooting fraternity. It came out just as the sport was experiencing a phase of phenomenal growth, and its accurate period garb and gear affected the choices of quite a few cowboy shooters. It is one of my favorite movies.
But if you are a child of the 1950s and ‘60s, your mental image of Wyatt Earp was probably formed not by movies but by the weekly TV series starring Hugh O’Brian, called The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. That show hit the airwaves in 1955, ran until 1961 and was the first of the adult westerns, paving the way for shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The series started when I was only a year old, so I was too young to remember much about it. But a couple of years ago I met Hugh O’Brian and he remarked that I ought to write an article on Wyatt Earp’s Buntline Special.
Hugh O’Brian played Wyatt Earp for six years in what has been called the first adult television western. His show paved the way for a generation of Westerns on TV. Everyone in my generation owes Hugh a debt of gratitude for that.
That piqued my interest enough that I bought the DVD box set of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and saw what I’d missed back in the 1950s. The program still holds up well today, unique in that it
made a real attempt to chronologically present Earp’s life as a lawman. Epi-sodes were based around the events Stuart Lake wrote about in his Earp biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, with Lake even serving as a technical advisor on the show. While a great deal of Lake’s book has been discredited by modern historical scholarship, he did know Earp personally, which must have provided the series with valuable insights into Earp’s character.
Watching the series I became a Hugh O’Brian fan and, as it turned out, when we showed up at last year’s Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) convention, we found ourselves next door neighbors to O’Brian’s booth. Hugh and his lovely wife Virginia were there signing autographs and we got to know the O’Brian’s better during the convention.