I can, I admit, still recall the words to the TV theme song: "Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave, courageous and bold ..." (Only now do I realize the phrase "brave, courageous and bold" may be a tad redundant.) Such things live with us forever; now Earp and others are getting a fresh cable look. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
These were the heroes – or, often, anti-heroes – of the Old
There was Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James and more.
They killed people, sometimes legally. “They’re on that thin razor-edge between
good and bad,” said Bob Boze Bell, an Old West historian.
Now each is profiled on cable’s American Heroes Channel. But
were they really heroic?
“Hickok’s a hero … but a very complicated one,” said Walt
Willey, who plays him in the series and in a one-man stage show. Even robbers
had their fans, Willey said: “Jesse James, who was a bandit, … had a Robin Hood
kind of feeling to him.”
They were men of a very different era, said series producer
Christopher Cassel. “Today, everybody has an iPhone; in the Old West, everybody
had a gun.”
And some fared better than others. In the opener, viewers
Earp, who seemed immortal. He “survived gun
battle after gun battle, including the most famous gun battle of all (near OK
Corral), without a single scratch,” said Kevin Bennett, the channel’s general
Doc Holliday, his ragged friend. He graduated
from dental school, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 22; he moved to the
Southwest, where he drank and gambled heavily.
“He basically wanted to die,” Bell said. “So he went into every
saloon and said, ‘Kill me.’ Now, how would you like to go up against that guy?”
Holliday’s relationships varied widely, Bell said. “He’s a
cold-blooded killer, he’s a card shark, he’s a ne’er-do-well. He hangs out with
all these prostitutes and stuff and he’s rooming with John J. Gospar in
Prescott (Arizona). Well, John J. Gosper is the acting governor of Arizona and
historians want to know: How did Doc Holliday sink so low as to room with (a
That last part is cowboy-style humor. Bell – who edits True
West magazine – knows that cowboys’ lives are a moving target; “we’re still
arguing about them,” he said.
Billy the Kid, reputed to have killed 21 men, probably
killed six or seven, Cassel said. Earp
was once considered a villain. And Wild Bill? “Hickok was the first media-generated
celebrity,” Willey said.
He had given an interview, Willey said, then went out scouting
for two years. When he returned, he found his story had been in Harper’s Weekly
and in dime novels. It kept growing, a process he didn’t resist. “He liked to
say, ‘Most of what you heard about me has been exaggerated, but all (the
stories) have come out of my mouth a time or two.’”
Now – 138 years after he was killed, at 38, during a poker
game -- cable tries to set the stories straight.
“Gunslingers,” 10 p.m. Sundays, American Heroes
Channel (formerly Military Channel)
Opener, July 20, is Wyatt Earp, followed July 27
by Billy the Kid. Also, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Tom Horn, John Wesley Hardin.