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Wyatt Earp Profile

Though his stock has dropped precipitously over the last twenty years, Wyatt Earp enjoyed an extended tenure as an archetypal hero for the edification of American boys. The long-running Desilu television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian as the "flawless" lawman, ran for six seasons on ABC and sustained the brand through the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. A discovery of Ida Lupino, the dark-eyed, perpetually pomaded and clean-shaven O'Brian would have looked more at home in an Italian sword-and-sandal film; he bore little resemblance to the actual Wyatt Earp, who is remembered as much for his walrus-style moustache as his trademark Colt "Buntline Special" revolver. A greater departure from the known facts was the rebooting of Tombstone's dastard peacemaker as a wholesome TV do-gooder. Writing about the gap between legend and truth in the example of Wyatt Earp, historian William B. Shillingberg noted in 1976 that "what eventually confronts serious historians is not a man but a grim-visaged caricature into which has been poured all the ingredients of a super myth. The emerging figure bears little if any resemblance to anyone. Wyatt Earp is made to embody all the spirit of boldness and self-reliance that most modern audiences find secretly satisfying."

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848. The fourth son of Nicholas Porter Earp was named in honor of his father's commanding officer during the Mexican War. While his older brother Virgil fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War, 16 year-old Wyatt shepherded his family across the Great Plains as part of a 40-wagon convoy to California, even defending the settlers against two attacks by indigenous natives. The prospect of a life tilling the sandy soil of San Bernardino County turned Wyatt against farming. He worked a number of menial jobs away from home but dutifully followed his family when they pointed themselves eastward. In Lamar, Missouri, Nicholas worked as a constable, a position he abdicated in favor of Wyatt. (When Wyatt ran for reelection, he was opposed by his half-brother Newton, Nicholas' son from a previous marriage.) Earp's early days as a lawman were undistinguished, marked by allegations of embezzlement and the premature death of his first wife. Leaving Lamar with a spotty reputation, Earp enjoyed the picaresque life of a wanderer and made the acquaintance of another future peace officer, William Barclay "Bat" Masterson. In his own writings, Masterson characterized Wyatt Earp as "destitute of fear," an assessment with which even Earp's harshest critics would concur.

The trajectory of Wyatt Earp's intermittent early career as an officer of the law took him from the cow towns of Ellsworth, Kansas, to Wichita (where he first pinned on a Marshall's star) to Dodge City. While breaking up a saloon fracas in 1878, Earp's life was saved by the intervention of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a former dentist who had abandoned his practice for the life of a professional gambler. Though various histories and film treatments would portray Earp as a gunfighter he was better known in his day as a scrapper, more likely to quell a disruption of the peace with his fists than with a bullet. When he rode with Bat Masterson and three others to bring to ground the killer of stage actress Dora Hand (fatally shot with a bullet meant for the mayor of Dodge City), news reports spread to the east and west coasts. The Earp brothers moved on to Tombstone, Arizona, where Virgil established himself as a deputy U.S. Marshall. Wyatt served briefly as a Pima County deputy sheriff but was also employed as a faro dealer and later bought an interest in a gambling concession in a local saloon. Long-standing enmity between the Earps and the sons and friends of rancher Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton, prime suspects in a string of stagecoach robberies, escalated into a brief but deadly shoot-out between the two factions on October 26, 1881.

The "Gunfight at the OK Corral" is literally the stuff of legend, as the thirty-second exchange of fire did not occur in that particular location but rather in a vacant lot behind it. Nevertheless, the sexy spin of Arizona lawmen (the Earps) restoring order from the sirocco of bestial lawlessness (represented by the Clantons and their associates, three of whom perished in the shoot-out) was too attractive a tale not to tell...and retell. The original faceoff and its deadly consequences (the subsequent murder of Morgan Earp, the ambush and crippling of Virgil Earp and the banishment of the entire family from Pima County) has been the subject of countless broadsheets, tabloid and police gazette articles, novels, stage plays, films and television shows.

In 1932, Walter Huston played a thinly veiled Wyatt Earp in Universal's Law and Order, adapted by John Huston from W. R. Burnett's novel Saint Johnson. Two years later, the Fox Film Corporation's Frontier Marshal was an adaptation of the purported facts as told by Earp to novelist Stuart Lake. Though Earp was at this point deceased and unlikely to sue for damages, the film's protagonist (George O'Brien, star of John Ford's The Iron Horse [1924]) was renamed Michael Wyatt. The property was again adapted for the big screen five years later by Allan Dwan, with Randolph Scott starring as Wyatt Earp and Cesar Romero playing Doc Halliday, whose assassination in the film occurs seven years before the real Doc Holliday died of natural causes. Such is the stuff of legends.

One might have difficulty imagining Richard Dix, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Will Geer, James Garner, Stacy Keach, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner all vying for one role and yet each of these actors played Wyatt Earp at some point in their careers. Fonda was arguably the best physical match for Earp, tall and rangy and underfed and haunted; Fonda even opted for a mustache, albeit not an authentic one. Yet My Darling Clementine (1946) swung wide of the known facts, oversimplifying the social and political dynamics that sparked the Gunfight at the OK Corral in favor of frontier myth-making characteristic of director John Ford. In Columbia's Masterson of Kansas (1954), directed by a pre-gimmick William Castle, dimpled Bruce Cowling played Earp as a devoted wingman of George Montgomery's eponymous town tamer; relegated to third banana status, Earp is also upstaged by James Griffith's Doc Holliday and is at one point unheroically knocked senseless by a tossed stone. Earp and Holliday were depicted as symbiotic soul mates in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Hour of the Gun (1967), directed a decade apart by John Sturges. In the former, Kirk Douglas' highly stylized take on Doc Holliday eclipsed Lancaster's robustly dour Wyatt Earp but James Garner was more successful in the latter at dimming down the star wattage to channel Earp's singular variety of vengeful civil service.

As revisionist history took the wind out of the sails of the Old West mythos, Wyatt Earp began to be seen as a significantly less than heroic figure, despite his proven accomplishments in the law and order racket. In the third season episode of Gene Roddenberry's landmark science fiction series Star Trek, entitled "Spectre of the Gun" (broadcast close to the 87th anniversary of the so-called OK Corral melee), the Earps are presented as villains, with the crew of the S.S. Enterprise forced through alien meddling to fill the boots of the doomed Clantons. (Series regular DeForest Kelley had played Morgan Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral.)

Shot in Spain, Frank Perry's grimy, downbeat 'Doc' (1971) cast New York stage actor Harris Yulin as a Machiavellian Wyatt Earp (to Stacy Keach's dead-eyed but sympathetic Doc Holliday), a slimy schemer prone to speechifying about making Tombstone a better place even as he doles out the hot lead to his political rivals. Pete Hamill's script has Earp turn his rout of the Clantons into a stump speech while a broken Doc Holliday saddles up and rides out to meet his own doom. It would be nearly twenty years before Wyatt Earp was seen again on the big screen. In Blake Edwards' Sunset (1988), James Garner returned to the character as an elderly man, seeking a shot at redemption by helping cowboy actor Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) solve a Hollywood murder. Between 1993 and 1994, Earp was played with varying degrees of authenticity by Kurt Russell in Tombstone and Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp. Both films were well received and remain well regarded but it remains highly unlikely that Wyatt Earp has any real place in the cinema of the 21st Century.

Post-Tombstone, the real Wyatt Earp wound up back in California, where he bent himself mostly to back-breaking manual labor. For a time he owned an oil field in Bakersfield but the returns from that investment were scant. Growing older and in declining health, Earp accepted the offer from a friend to move into the top floor of his apartment building on 17th Street in Los Angeles, where he resided for the rest of his days with his third wife, Josephine (known alternatively as Josie and Sadie). Starting in 1920, Earp took occasional work as a technical advisor on the sets of western films, visiting the studios and becoming an intimate and confidante of such established and rising western stars and filmmakers as William S. Hart, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Tom Mix and a young prop man named Marion Morrison, who found fame in oaters under the stage name John Wayne. Largely eschewing notoriety, Earp lived quietly in Hollywood. He died from complications of cystitis on January 13, 1929, two months before his 81st birthday. Present at his funeral were Hopalong Cassidy, William S. Hart and Tom Mix, who is said to have wept openly. Even if that last part isn't true, it makes a great story.

by Richard Harland Smith

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend by David Taleteller
Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra
"Wyatt Earp, Tombstonian," by Tim Fattig, Tombstone Times
Profile of Wyatt Earp by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace, The People's Almanac
"Wyatt Earp and the 'Buntline Special' Myth" by William B. Shillingberg, Kansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 1976 (Vol. 42, No. 2)